Bars, dividers make spaces less welcome to homeless: Observers

30 Nov 2020

Straits Times, 30 Nov 2020, Bars, dividers make spaces less welcome to homeless: Observers

SINGAPORE - Public spaces in Singapore have been designed to be unwelcome to the homeless - and as a response to citizens complaining about rough sleepers in their midst, according to architects and experts.
With an uptick in rough-sleeping during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government and community partners have stepped up to build more shelters. Government data in July revealed that some 800 homeless families and individuals were occupying these shelters.
Last year, a nationwide count led by Assistant Professor Ng Kok Hoe from the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy found 1,050 people sleeping rough on the streets.
Prof Ng and other observers pointed to the growing prevalence of public benches with dividers or metal bars on them, as well as benches converted to single seats, saying they are prime examples of urban features that are "defensive" or "hostile" towards the homeless.
Asked about the dividers, a Building and Construction Authority spokesman said they were armrests for the elderly or people with mobility difficulties, and to help them get up from the benches.
But town councils and MPs approached by The Straits Times said these dividers were installed to deter rough sleeping and loitering, and arose from resident feedback.
Prof Ng said the effect of such designs was to deny homeless people a safe and sheltered place to lie down and rest. This could also end up driving them to more concealed locations that are less safe and harder for outreach volunteers to access, he added.
Architects who previously worked on public-sector projects told ST they were asked to produce designs deliberately hostile to the homeless. "They would tell us - it's too smooth, you need to make it rougher, put little metal studs, make it uncomfortable," said one architect, who asked to remain anonymous.
A guidebook produced by the National Crime Prevention Council in 2003 advises that "sitting rails instead of benches should be provided to prevent people from sleeping in bus shelters or taxi stands". Officials from the council said the book has not been updated since, as its guidelines remain relevant.
Associate Professor Chong Keng Hua from the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) said this stance can be directly attributed to residents voicing discomfort with the presence of homeless people at their void decks, and a general desire for the Government to "solve the problem and hide them away".
His observation, gleaned from community engagement efforts, was mirrored by National University of Singapore sociology professor Daniel Goh.
"The more complaints, the more pressure on agencies to address this," said the former Workers' Party Non-Constituency MP. "If there's anybody to blame, it's not the Government, it's society."
While some in the industry have called for greater research into the societal effects of such designs, others are advocating more open, visible designs as a way forward.
At the 2020 Singapore Architectural Festival (Archifest), locally based firm WY-TO partnered Singapore Polytechnic to exhibit a prototype lightweight and transportable shelter for the homeless.
"We are designing this to show that the homeless deserve better sleeping environments," said WY-TO founder Yann Follain. "People will surely complain about having such a shelter in their estates, but it will also trigger conversations about what we can do."
Said SUTD's Prof Chong: "The difficult part is getting the community to understand that they sometimes need to be more gracious and receptive to people who are struggling, and to welcome different people to coexist within a neighbourhood."