The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Designing for sleeping rough: a harm reduction approach to homelessness in Australian cities

Interviewing several men sleeping rough on the streets of Perth, Marcus Tudehope discovers overwhelming support for a harm reduction approach to homelessness, while dispelling the myth that making life easier for rough sleepers would encourage more of them, as critics of the approach fear.

Marcus Tudehope

Cities: Perth

Topics: Homelessness, Architecture and urban design

'Bus Shelter House' by Sean Godsell Architects. Photo: Hayley Franklin
'Bus Shelter House' by Sean Godsell Architects. Photo: Hayley Franklin
'Park Bench House' by Sean Godsell Architects. Photo: Hayley Franklin
'Park Bench House' by Sean Godsell Architects. Photo: Hayley Franklin
'Park Bench House' by Sean Godsell Architects. Photo: Hayley Franklin
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The traditional approach to homelessness and 'sleeping rough' in Australian cities can be summarised as relocating the issue rather than addressing it.

Manifested overtly through civil and municipal law and more subtly through urban design and policy, homelessness is treated more as a deliberate act of deviance than as a consequence of poverty or an act of last resort.

But given its omnipresence and its persistence through different economic cycles, political climates and cultural contexts, perhaps the traditional approach to sleeping rough could do with a serious rethink.

The philosophy of harm reduction advocates reducing the vulnerability of people engaged in an 'antisocial' activity, mitigating the risks of trauma rather than pursuing the cessation of the activity itself. The approach was developed in response to issues associated with illicit drug use and the spread of HIV, and has been successfully applied to the sex industry.

People don't want to be homeless no matter what, everyone wants a home to go to ... Doesn't matter if you're a drunk or drug addict or whatever they all want a home, you don't want to be living outside.

Harm reduction occupies some interesting moral territory; the potential for conflict is predictable. The provision of sterile needles to drug addicts does enable their continuing drug use, and distributing condoms to prostitutes could be taken as an official endorsement of the industry. A fundamental of the approach is the recognition of the ubiquity of certain antisocial activities, a zero tolerance approach in such cases is not necessarily beneficial, and indeed can be counterproductive and harmful.

So, mindful of the critique that it encourages further 'antisocial' activity, is there potential for a harm reduction approach to sleeping rough in Australian cities? If so, what would be the workings of such an approach, and how would it differ from current thinking in the design and management of public space?

In Perth, Western Australia, I put that question to 17 people* who were currently sleeping on the street. Respondents were asked to describe their relationship with the public spaces they existed within, where they slept, their concerns, aspirations, and opinions of the harm reduction concept. Responses were overwhelmingly supportive, yet did not support the 'encouragement' myth, and suggested that a more inclusive design has the potential to significantly reduce trauma and assist with individual efforts to exit from homelessness.

Lacking the status of legitimate users of urban space, the homeless are typically excluded from official discourse. Little attention has thus been give to studying what constitutes a safe and healthy place for sleeping rough in an Australian city. Amongst respondents typical locations included alleyways and alcoves, building sites, vacant houses, an inner city playground and shopping centre roofs. All respondents reported a struggle to balance the need for shelter from the elements against a fear of violence and theft, and the conundrum of being in the public gaze.

'The problem is you're never out of the wind; between all the buildings are all wind tunnels. If you're out of the wind, as long as you don't get seen or moved on or bashed, it ain't that bad.'  Steve 43

'If there's three or four of you generally you can sleep a bit more out in the open; if there's more of you you're right but if your arms are in your sleeping bag and you're asleep you're not safe at all — I prefer to be out of the way and on my own.' Mark 29

'Not somewhere where people can see you, get moved on, if they don't like you they give you a fine, if you had anything on you, you'd get rolled [robbed], if people see you're asleep you get rolled, people kick you and whatever, you need to be somewhere where no one can see you.' Steve 43

'Get the shit kicked out of you while you're asleep, so that's the number one thing, then you settle for comfort with what you got.' Steve 28

Respondents were asked to consider a supervised area where sleeping rough was tolerated under controlled conditions (i.e. police or ranger surveillance). The workings of such an area were not discussed in detail; rather respondents were asked for their initial reactions to the concept. Responses were mixed:

But it raises the question: if we have the ability to implicitly design the homeless out of our cities, could we then not also implicitly design them in?

'Having an area being supervised would be ideal. Where there's a rule about drinking and whatever, people are kept to a limit.' Kevin 52

'I don't think that does endorse it [sleeping rough]. I think it gives people an option to go to where there's not going to be trouble caused, where perhaps they might even be able to think about things, rather than a couple of hours' sleep and getting disturbed where you don't have enough time to get your head clear.' Dave 25

'Supervision at the time would have made me very uncomfortable; I was very much not into being around people at the time.' John 51

'If you could go there, sleep and not be harassed, most people would probably find companionship and find they've got someone to talk to. I don't think it'd make much difference to anything else, it just might mean they'd probably get a better sleep and be a bit more cheerier in the morning.' Carlo 34

'Some people would claim a spot. Everyone will be there, if they say you can't drink or stuff like that someone will act up, and it'll get ruined.' Steve 43

'It'd give people an alternative to sitting in parks, that's where shit happens. Safety is the main thing, because it was pretty scary, I would just go sit out the front of Maccas [McDonald's] cause I knew the coppers were watching.' Mark 29

The lack of a secure location to store belongings was a consistent source of concern. The constant need to carry all of one's possessions was described as severely limiting.

'You can either carry it [one's belongings] round all day and there's a stigma attached to it, clearly if you had a wardrobe you'd have your stuff there, it's a hassle carrying it it's too heavy, you can't go do anything, you can't take it on the bus, so you do a lot of walking and it's too heavy to carry so you think 'stuff this' you go hide it somewhere and inevitably someone finds it, rips it off, there's nothing you can do.' Rick 44

'Main thing I worried about was it was going to rain and all my stuff would get wet, I had that happen when I was 25 and homeless, lost my doona, everything got drowned and filthy, I had nowhere to dry it.' Stuart 34

'The worst thing about sleeping rough is not sleeping it's what you do with all your gear, there's no lockers available in the city, not one, you can't leave your stuff anywhere, you can hide it in the bushes and someone finds it and they knick it, and you lose all your clothes and everything, it's happened to me.' John 51

When asked about the possibility of more low cost opportunities to store their belongings responses were positive:

'If you had somewhere where you could have your gear stored 24 hours a day, and get your swag out when you need it, that'd be good.' John 24

'That'd be good; peace of mind that your stuff's safe and that you're getting looked over.' Joel 28

An urban design informed by harm reduction would likely include a public space that reflects the needs of groups other than the conventional or 'daytime' user. respondents were asked to consider the integration of rudimentary shelter into public space and civic infrastructure. Melbourne architect Sean Godsell's Park Bench House and Bus Shelter House (pictured) were used as examples, both designs adaptable to accommodate daytime users as well as rough sleepers.

Mindful of the traditional critiques of harm reduction, respondents were asked if they believed such a design would:

  • encourage them to sleep rough
  • increase the amount of time they spent sleeping rough
  • discourage them from seeking stable accommodation
  • make the experience more or less traumatic

Respondents overwhelmingly felt that rather than increase rough sleeping, a more inclusive design would simply make the experience less traumatic for those who would be engaging in the act regardless.

'People don't want to be homeless no matter what, everyone wants a home to go to, that [shelter] would just be keeping them alive longer so maybe they reach that goal. Doesn't matter if you're a drunk or drug addict or whatever they all want a home, you don't want to be living outside.' Kevin 52

'It would make it less traumatic, you need stuff out there to help people that are unfortunate enough to be in that situation.' David 25

'No way, nothing could encourage you to be homeless, it's not a choice, it doesn't matter what's out there people are going to become homeless due to their circumstances not because it's easy, no one wants to do it.' Steve 28

'No, that wouldn't encourage me to be homeless, I don't like being on the street, I wasn't there by choice, one bad thing happened after another'. Stuart 34

'The only people I've seen sleeping are either addicts, alcoholics or [those with] mental health issues, they're going to be on the street until they get better, and there's always going to be people on the streets, there's always going to be drug addicts and alcoholics.' Kevin 28

'Not really, you'd prefer to sleep on a bed than a bench … it'd make it heaps less traumatic, it wouldn't increase the amount of time I spent there, it'd just make it a bit easier to sleep.' Steve 43

'It doesn't make people want to stay on the street longer, pretty much 100% of people out there at the moment want to get back on their feet, want to set themselves up so they can do things that they'd like to do. In my case I would love to have my kids back, I would love to be able to do things with my children, and provide for what their needs are.' Rick 53

The longer one is homeless the slimmer the chances of a desirable exit from that state. Declining appearance, health and emotional well being are associated with lengthy periods of time on the street. Employability declines as does material and psychological resources.

A harm reduction approach can reduce trauma and thus improve individual chances of exiting from homelessness, complementing wider strategies to house the population. Planners would also acquire the ability to direct rough sleeping to more appropriate urban locations. A situation that is undoubtedly preferable to continuing to have people sleeping in playgrounds, in building sites, and on shopping centre roofs.

A prerequisite to more inclusive urban design is recognition that the homeless have a legitimate right to use public space, albeit differently. This legitimacy is effectively 'earned' through the omnipresence of sleeping rough in Australinan cities: it may not be desirable, nevertheless it is there. This is not a criticism of any past or current strategies to end homelessness, just an acknowledgement of the reality, and of the yet untapped opportunities for urban design to assist a disadvantaged group.

The experiences related here raise some compelling questions as to the effectiveness of the traditional approach of criminalising rough sleeping. By integrationg principles of harm reduction, the design and management of public space has the potential to assist individual efforts to exit from homelessness. This is undoubtedly a paradigm shift from previous approaches, but the changes on the ground to our cities need not be drastic. But it raises the question: if we have the ability to implicitly design the homeless out of our cities, could we then not also implicitly design them in?

'Whether it's right or wrong people are there. If people don't want to help themselves, there's nothing you can do about that, but at least you can help them in their situation to alleviate some of the stress they're going through.' Kevin 28


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