London criticized for anti-homeless spikes, but is Canada any better?

Matthew Coutts
Daily Brew
The picture of anti-homeless spikes caused outrage on social media. (Andrew Horton/Twitter)

Canada may not do enough to help its homeless community, but at least we've never lumped them in with pests and vermin the way on London apartment complex did when it installed metal spikes on the ground near its entrance.

Except, apparently we have. According to a Canadian homeless advocate group, anti-homeless spikes are relatively common and have even made occasional appearances in Canada.

"I've seen them around, I've seen them here in Calgary and I've seen them in other cities around Canada," Tim Richter, head of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, told Yahoo Canada News.

"Typically outside high-rise buildings. It is the same kind of thing that lots of places do to deter skate boarding. The last time I saw them was right outside a C-train station in Calgary. They are unfortunately fairly common"

A volcano of outrage erupted over the weekend after an image of metal spikes located outside a London apartment complex was posted online.

The photo, posted to Twitter by several users, shows three rows of metal spikes posted near the entrance to the building.

The studs appear ideally located to stop people from sleeping nearby, and were quickly likened to the rows of spikes often used to keep pigeons from nesting in public areas.

The Telegraph newspaper reports that the spikes had been installed in recent weeks, but similar studs have been previously used outside other apartment complexes. Advocates for the homeless community called them inhumane.

"It is a scandal that anyone should sleep on the streets in 21st century Britain. Yet over the last three years rough sleeping has risen steeply across the country and by a massive 75 per cent in London," Katharine Sacks-Jones, head of the homelessness charity Crisis, said in a statement.

"They deserve better than to be moved on to the next doorway along the street. We will never tackle rough sleeping with studs in the pavement. Instead we must deal with the causes."

Richter agrees, saying the only way to address homelessness is to offer assistance and address the root causes of the issue.

"If you are worried about people sleeping in your alcoves or your foyers or whatever, you need to deal with the reasons they are there. You need to provide help and support as a community. That is the 'ah-ha' moment that a lot of communities are having," he said.

In Canada, it has been estimated that there are 150,000 homeless people, but the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH) says that estimate is low. It is possible as much as three per cent of the population, or one million people, is absolutely homeless - meaning they 'sleep rough' in public parks or other areas. Even more people are considered part of the 'hidden' homeless population - those who "couch surf" and have no permanent home.

The CAEH released a study in 2012 with an aim on ending homelessness, focusing on finding and creating permanent housing for homeless people. The report found that social housing actually costs a community much less than leaving a person homeless, or putting them in institutions or even emergency shelters.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities similarly considers homelessness a key issue and last year launched a campaign to address Canada's housing shortage. More than 160 communities have already passed resolutions to support the campaign.

Despite the efforts to address the issue, there seems to be an underlying sense in society that homelessness can be dealt with by pushing it down the street.

In America, cities are taking more and stronger steps against assisting homeless populations.

According to a recent report from Vice News, at least 33 U.S. cities passed new restrictions on feeding homeless people between January 2013 and April 2014.

These compound the laws already on the books, estimated to be in the hundreds, including a Houston law that makes it illegal to given more than five homeless people food without prior consent from the city.

Canada has seen its own outrage over the handling of a homeless population.

Last year, Abbotsford, B.C., incited outrage when it spread chicken manure across an area that had become a prevalent homeless encampment. The outrage led city officials to apologize, remove the manure and a lawsuit led by a homeless advocacy group.

"It is a pretty typical pattern of responses to homelessness and rough sleeping in most communities. They want to deal with the symptoms of the problem and not the problem itself," Richter said.

"Whether you are putting these spikes in place or spreading manure on homeless camps, or your police officers and bylaw officers are issuing fines to homeless people, really you are pushing the problem around. You're not solving it.

"You are kicking the can down the road, so to speak. You are just chasing them off to another part of the community."

Richter says many Canadian communities finally understand the importance of dealing with the root cause of homelessness.

In the wake of the manure incident, Abbotsford now has a homelessness task force set on addressing the issue properly. Richter also noted Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Medicine Hat, Alta., as communities taking progressive approaches to dealing with homelessness.

So even if anti-homeless spikes have made their appearance in Canada, most communities seem to understand that such tactics won't solve the problem. They'll just push the issue down the street.

Until the neighbour installs sharper spikes, then it will be back at your doorstep.

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