Go, Move, Shift

I’m a very lucky woman. Despite the occasional unorthodox lifestyle choice (no marriage, no car, no school), I’m generally treated respectfully by people I meet. My right to exist is not usually questioned or challenged.

I’ve never had to cope with moving into a new area, to be greeted by something like this:

I’ve never been homeless, never come up against the myriad architectural features that exist to make urban spaces unwelcoming for people with nowhere else to go.

anti-homeless spikes in London

It’s much more than spikes – click the picture for an article about the whole range of hostile architecture.

As I say, I’m lucky. What I don’t understand is why other people, also blessed with stable homes in a country not currently riven by war, feel the need to drive the unlucky ones so far out of sight.

Is this happening more? Maybe it’s always been like this and I’ve just noticed it more this year. In the last five weeks alone, 28% of voters supported a party whose main policy was opposition to immigration, refugees have had their makeshift shelters bulldozed in Calais, there’s been an outcry about spikes to prevent rough sleepers bedding down in the ‘wrong’ places, and the annual round of traveller evictions has begun again in Brighton.

Here are the lyrics, for those who prefer or need to read, rather than listen.

Despite my luckiness in life, I do have some small insight into being one of the unwanted ones, thanks to my obstinate choice to get around by bike. Like gypsies and travellers, “cyclists” are an acceptable target for violently expressed hatred.

I’ve often wondered if, in both cases, this is born of envy. Watching someone whizz past the traffic jam on a bike must be a bit galling, I suppose. A travelling life doesn’t appeal to me, but I guess it might look like an easy option for people who work in jobs they don’t enjoy to pay sky-high rents, while the travellers seem to come and go as they please. There’s a feeling that the outsider group is somehow getting away with something and should be made to knuckle under like the rest of us.

Even though it would make so much more sense to design cities, as they do in the Netherlands, in order to encourage and welcome cycling by people of all ages, for all kinds of journeys, riding a bike in the UK at the moment means negotiating an environment so hostile it might as well have been designed by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

Last week, I went to a consultation workshop on the proposed new road layout in North Street. A large part of the conversation focused on concerns (expressed mainly by the police and representatives of the Chapel Royal) that additional seating in North Street might inadvertently provide a refuge for the rough sleepers and street drinkers who are apparently soon to be driven out of New Road and Pavilion Gardens. The developers did their best to be reassuring, explaining that the new development will flatten the building fronts on North Street, removing all those enticing doorways.

When I said the street drinkers didn’t prevent me from enjoying New Road and Pavilion Gardens, I was told I must be very unusual. Am I? I don’t think so. Both areas are always busy and bustling when I go there. The street drinkers don’t dominate, because the space has been made welcoming for everyone.

It seems to me that these problems are not caused by the existence or presence of those unwanted people, but by our inability to share nicely. If we can make our cities and continents into places where there’s a bit of space for all kinds of people, then we might have a chance of working out how to actually help those among us who are down on their luck, instead of spending all our energy trying to sweep them away.

After all, as we are rapidly finding out to our cost, there is no “away” on a finite planet. There is no bottomless pit for our rubbish, no sink big enough for our carbon and no safe storage for our nuclear waste. And there is no “someplace else” for the refugees, the travellers, the street people and the cyclists to put themselves.

This Saturday, at the People’s Assembly Against Austerity demonstration in London, I heard a young woman speak simply and powerfully about the campaign by a group of young single mothers to be housed in London, after Newham council evicted them from their hostel.

The Focus E15 mums are an inspiration as they continue to fight for decent housing for everyone, not just themselves. Here in Brighton, housing is also a major issue. With 28% of local households living in private rented accommodation and house prices continuing to rise, tenants are facing increasing demands to pay more rent and higher agency fees or find “somewhere else” to live.

Brighton People’s Assembly Against Austerity and the new Living Rent Campaign have called a public meeting on July 10th, to talk about how we can begin to turn things around. I’ll be there and I hope it can be the start of a more hopeful conversation.