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Homeless Hating, by Design, and the Sacramento Library Benches Rip Out of 2010

A new article in The Atlantic looks at how heinous means are employed by some cities to make things uncomfortable for homeless people. It’s titled “How cities use design to drive homeless people away” with the subheading: “ ’saying you’re not welcome here’ – with spikes.”

One of the total of two (identical) benches in front
of Central Library. It is perhaps possible to sleep on,
but would be easy to roll off of and crack your head.
A prime topic in the article is in regard to bench construction that makes them difficult or impossible to sleep on, or, in some instances, even to sit on comfortably.  Without benches to sleep on, or sit on, homeless folk will “self deport” seems to be the intent of use of wayward designs.
The entrance to Central Branch of
 the Sacramento Public Library.
Sacramento homeless folk who have been around awhile are aware of changes made to the benches in front of the Central Library on I Street. It was a clear case of “use of design to drive homeless people away.”

There used to be standard, solid metal, easy-to-sit-on (and sleep on) benches in front of the main, I Street, entrance to Central Library. But, then, without public input, a “study” was done at the behest of the Head of the Sacramento Public Library at the time – Ms. Gold I think her name was – to see how the benches were being used.
It was a fake “study” that supposedly determined that the benches were not being utilized by library cardholders and other users of Central Library’s materials and services. Thus, the good benches – ones that had a proper appearance and made for a comfortable sit were ripped out to be replaced by the two inappropriate bright-green no-backrest benches in front of the Central branch, today.

A bench near a Light Rail stop proximate
to Central Library. The extra middle armrest
makes it impossible for a person to lay down.
Homeless people represent a high percentage of perusers of the library’s half-million books and magazines. And we use its many services, including – notably – being the primary users of public computers.  But the fake study simply used an ideal that people who were prim and proper were legitimate, whereas anybody who was so much as slightly disheveled or wore plaid or carried a book upside-down was, by that evidence alone, incapable of spelling "cat," and was thus part of the despised rabble who only used the library as a place to drink whisky, have gay sex in the fourth-floor restroom and hide out from parole officers.

The Great Library Benches Rip Out happened in 2010. I know this because after the weekend of Gold’s despoiling of the front of the library, Steve Lopez was in the lobby of Central sitting behind a table that had a stack of his book on it. Lopez’s book was The Soloist, his true story about befriending a homeless guy who was an incredibly talented musician. Jamie Foxx and Robert Downy, Jr., were the stars of the 2010 movie that was then in theaters.
From what I saw – and I was paying more than a little attention – Lopez was very much ignored that day by the public. Appropriate, I guess, that on a day when library homeless hating was on people’s minds, Lopez’s homeless-people-appreciating book should get the cold shoulder.

Writes Robert Rosenberger in his The Atlantic piece,
An example of a pervasive homeless deterrence technology is benches designed to discourage sleeping. These include benches with vertical slats between each seat, individual bucket seats, large armrests between seats, and wall railings which enable leaning but not sitting or lying, among many other designs. There are even benches made to be slightly uncomfortable in order to dissuade people from sitting too long.
I was happy to read that The Atlantic -- or the article written by Robert Rosenberger, at least -- is fully homeless-folk friendly. In the piece’s last paragraph, here is how Rosenberger ends things with a rousing flourish. [The spikes that are mentioned were set in concrete in London to deter homeless people from sleeping.]

The London spikes provide an opportunity to put a finger on our own intuitions about issues of homelessness and the design of open space. Ask yourself if you were appalled by the idea of the anti-homeless spikes. If so, then by implication you should have the same problems with other less obvious homeless deterrence designs like the sleep-prevention benches and the anti-loitering policies that target homeless people. This question applies as well to the mayors of London and Montreal. Considering the outrage they’ve expressed over the anti-homeless spikes, I am curious to see if their concerns also extend to the further anti-homeless designs and policies that mark their cities.

A bus-stop bench near Central Library.
Too narrow to sleep upon.
While there are no spikes in the concrete outdoor walkways to deter sleeping (or defecating or urinating) in Sacramento that I know of, other than that, Rosenberger’s words, in regard to London and Montreal, could be extended to Sacramento. Our mayor, Kevin Johnson, has expressed support for the Sacramento homeless population, but has been stinting with words and funds in recent years.

It is also the case that Chavez Park has been transformed such to be intensely homeless-folk averse from the somewhat tolerant place that it used to be four or five years ago. This is evidenced by a big circle of benches, there, all of which are of wayward design to prevent lying down.

I recognize that having separate communities for the various levels of society is where we are getting to. Walled and patrolled communities for the rich. And at the other extreme, cabins made of pressed wood for the Lowest of the Low caste, set up in a brier patch in far Northeast Natomas. But I would contend that this is a big mistake. We should all live together. The biggest beneficiaries of being all together would be the rich; it would keep them from turning into heartless Zombie-like creatures who give money to homeless-services charities, sure, but otherwise cannot identify with the problems homeless people endure.


Rick Eaton said…
Sacramento has a few tools, subtle and not, to encourage those with overfull backpacks, wearers of plaid on plaid, devotees of rough sleeping, and smokers of unfiltered cigarettes to keep moving along. The amazingly uncomfortable modern benches and laws prohibiting smoking in city parks are special favorites. Nothing is more American than having a smoke while sitting in the park. (Well, maybe sleeping in church, but I digress) I did discover an oasis of homeless comfort in Capital Park. Since it is a state park, smoking is encouraged and there are still a number of classic wood-slatted benches that invite extended visits and deep sleep. Although the park had no books, I believe it did offer gay sex. So, there's that.
I am glad your mind, if not your physical self, remains connected to the sainted homeless community here in Sacramento, Rick. It will remain a part of you even when Donny and Danny and Ed and Tim Lane and Rev. Mooney welcome you into the wooded environs of lovely Heaven. I expecting that Heaven has very nice benches.
Rick Eaton said…
Oh dear. Donny, Danny, BroBill(tm), good times... The romance, the adventure. I will never forget. Btw, if anyone has any suggestions on how to forget...
My email, today, to the Director of the Sacramento Public Library:

Ms. Sass,

In the past, you've come close, but no cigar. But now that SPL is, again, stinking rich as Midas, it is time to co-ordinate another campaign for GLORY for the mighty Sacramento Public Library.

You're wowing the public already with ancestry research, flower-arrangement classes; Star Trek-like 3D printing; book printing (even though every book from I Street Press I've seen coulda used some copy editing). [AND, while I'm thinkin' of it: Why not use 3D printing for I Street Press books? It would be so very cool to see Madam Bovary come into being layer-by-layer, page-by-page on a 3D Printer.]

I understand that this fall y'all are going to have Reading Groups for Auto Repair Manuals and at South Natomas they hope to read the 1949 Encyclopedia Britannica.

But if you truly want to do that little bit extra to cinch it such that SPL is acknowledged as the nation's Best of the Best, BRING BACK THE BEAUTIFUL BENCHES THAT WHATSHERNAME, YOU PREDECESSOR, GOT RID OF THAT STOOD IN FRONT OF CENTRAL BRANCH, DAMN IT. Get rid of those two green-monster table-like benches. We, the Central Branch lovers of Sacramento. won't stand for not having nice benches to sit on -- such that we can read a book outside in a summer breeze. Also, the big, sturdy benches of old will be handy for homeless people to use to sleep on at night.

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