As Michael Fabricant found out to his cost last week, a Twitter storm can blow up out of nowhere, trailing chaos in its wake.

In a piece for the Atlantic, Robert Rosenberger describes another recent tempest:

“Earlier this month, someone tweeted a picture of a series of metal spikes built into the ground outside a London apartment building.

“The spikes were intended to discourage homeless people from sleeping in the area, and their presence sparked a public outcry. London’s mayor called the spikes ‘ugly, self defeating & stupid,’ and the mayor of Montreal called similar spikes in his own city ‘unacceptable!!!!’ Protesters poured concrete over a set of spikes outside of a Tesco supermarket. Then, after a petition was signed by nearly 130,000 people, the spikes were removed from the London apartment building, the Tesco, and downtown Montreal.”  

Mission accomplished, then?

Not quite. As Rosenberger explains, devices to deter rough-sleeping are an everyday feature of the urban environment:

“…the spikes that caused the uproar are by no means the only form of homeless-deterrent technology; they are simply the most conspicuous. Will public concern over the spikes extend to other less obvious instances of anti-homeless design?”

The answer to that is no – because these design features are so commonplace we don’t even notice them:

“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. Sadly, such designs are particularly common in subway, bus stops, and parks that present the homeless with the prospect of a safe public place to sleep.”

So, there it is: while the attempt to deter rough-sleeping on private property provokes outrage, the mass movement to make our park benches dosser-friendly is conspicuous by its absence. One might also wonder if any of the people who tweeted their righteous anger over the spikes also tweeted their home address with an open invitation to take a kip in the front garden.

One can hardly expect consistency from the general public, but Robert Rosenberger surely has a point when he challenges the blatant bandwagoning of the elected politicians:

“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.”

Instead of attacking people for protecting their own property, it would be good to hear more from Boris on his ideas for tackling the root causes of the problem. Of course, it might help if he – along with other local government leaders – were given the power and the responsibility to develop the innovative policies needed to find real solutions to homelessness.