Spikes, Shelters, and Stories: Listening to the voices of the urban homeless

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Urban design is not typically the point of heated political debate, though lately the internet has spoken otherwise. New anti-homeless spikes on benches in London and Montreal, deemed "hostile architecture", pitted citizens against local authorities, leading to an online petition that successfully led to the removal of the spikes.

PAY & SIT: the private bench (HD) from Fabian Brunsing on Vimeo.

If the spikes were a symbol of hostility towards the homeless, does their removal harbinger social inclusion and acceptance?

According to Matthew Pearce, CEO of the Old Brewery Mission in Montreal, one of Canada's largest homeless shelters, the answer is no.

Pearce writes in The Gazette that "We will not see any change in homelessness in Montreal unless we also change the way in which we respond to [homelessness]."

Being homeless is not simply about having a surface to sleep on-- it's about finding one's place in society without having a postal address or a door to welcome guests into.

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The Old Brewery Mission in Old Montreal. (Source: Flickr)

Pearce describes the current system of "warehousing" the homeless inside shelters as outdated. They are being replaced with transition programs, mental and physical health services, and different models of supported affordable housing. "Today, someone arriving at our doors for the first time heads to a residential assessment-and-referral program — not a shelter bed. Four in every five depart, and reintegrate into the community, within two to three weeks. The others move on to our transition programs. More than 500 of them reintegrate into society every year."

The success story of the Old Brewery Mission marks the importance of social inclusion, and getting folks back on their feet so they can walk on their own.

Social innovation breeds social inclusion

A new project in Spain delves deep into the stories, lives, and particularly the words of the homeless to a whole new level -- turning them into marketable typefaces. Homeless Fonts, a joint effort between the charitable Arrels Foundation and creative agency McCann Worldgroup, has paired designers with a handful of homeless people to create typefaces inspired by the handwriting of the homeless. The designers are taking the group's testimonies and handwritten cardboard signs to create a line of fonts that highlight the homeless experience in a personal way. The idea is for corporations to purchase these fonts for use, with proceeds going towards Arrels' homeless outreach work in Barcelona.

Another story-based initiative that runs on the voices of the homeless is London's Unseen Tours, a social enterprise that offers walking tours of London led by homeless, formerly homeless, and vulnerably housed tour guides. The enterprise grew out of the volunteer network the Sock Mob, a meetup group that facilitates interaction between people from different walks of life -- through socks and stories. Unseen Tours takes that model a step further by providing paid work to tour guides who can guide visitors through London's historical and cultural quirks through an alternative and meaningful lens.

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La Buanderie, or Streetsuds, an employment program for at-risk homeless adults to reintegrate into the workforce.

In Montreal, an industrial laundry service with a social mission aims to reintegrate people struggling with mental illness, homelessness and addiction into the working world. La Buanderue, or StreetSuds, was started by a McGill student and the Saint James drop-in centre as a one-year program aimed to prepare high-risk adults to return to the workforce. In addition to a bus pass and a $130 monthly allowance from Emploi-Québec, each graduate of StreetSuds receives a $1,000 bonus to set their futures in motion. The work at the laundromat is not easy, but participants appreciate the motivation to get up and go to work every morning.

Perhaps it's about empowering the marginalized, or being more inclusive in defining our urban community. Or, listening to the unheard stories of the streets we walk every day. As Pearce writes, "what we all share is a desire to see homelessness reduced".

But, whether it's a homeless youth or a struggling single mother in the city, those deemed powerless have just as much of a place in the city as a wealthy CEO living in a penthouse condominium. Famed urban theorist Saskia Sassen writes in "Does the City have Speech?": "the city, and  especially the street, is a space where the powerless can make history". Throughout history, the city has always been created a powerful collection of voices. It is the diversity of voices that breathe life into a fully complex and incomplete system - complex in its myriad stories and histories, and incomplete its continual rebirth.