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A small sign that says 'No Camping' and has a picture of a tent crossed out, positioned near a park.
Individual rules against activities such as camping or just resting on a ledge may not seem like a big deal. But taken together, they make life more difficult for people without shelter. Robert Rosenberger

Spikes, seat dividers, even ‘Baby Shark’ − camping bans like the one under review at SCOTUS are part of broader strategies that push out homeless people

Should cities be allowed to outlaw sleeping in public, even when there are no beds available in local shelters? This is what the U.S. Supreme Court will decide in its review of the case Grants Pass v. Johnson.

Lower courts have ruled that arresting someone for sleeping outside when there are no free shelter beds in the area is a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment. In other words, it’s cruel to punish people who are sleeping in public if they have nowhere else to go, because sleeping is a normal and necessary human behavior. Now the Supreme Court justices will determine whether this ruling can stand.

Advocates for unhoused people argue these kinds of anti-camping laws effectively make homelessness a crime. If the Supreme Court overturns the ruling, this could intensify cities’ efforts to treat the unhoused as criminals.

As a professor of philosophy who studies homelessness, I believe it is important to understand camping bans as part of wider efforts to displace unhoused people. Cities do many things to assist people experiencing homelessness, providing everything from shelters to food pantries. Yet cities also use a variety of tactics to push unhoused people out of public view.

Perhaps the most revealing is “hostile architecture,” a focus of my research. This term is often used for public spaces designed in ways that discriminate against specific vulnerable populations. The most common examples are objects that present a physical barrier to everyday activities for people without housing.

Hostile design

One common example are spikes added to ledges to deter people from leaning or sitting. Since spikes are often quite noticeable, however, and their purpose is obvious, they occasionally elicit controversy.

A close-up photo of a ledge on the edge of a building, with metal barriers built into it.
Spikes on a ledge in San Francisco. Robert Rosenberger

Another pervasive but less attention-grabbing form of hostile architecture are benches that have been redesigned to make them difficult or impossible to use as sleeping spaces. This is accomplished through a variety of design schemes that prevent people from lying down, from bucket seating or seat dividers to armrests.

Any number of other hostile physical obstructions can be found. Garbage cans are often fitted with hood designs, as well as external cases with built-in locks, to deter trash-picking.

Other designs alter the landscape itself. Bollards or boulders can be brought in to break up potential camping spaces. Fencing can be used to block off sheltered areas such as highway underpasses.

A white sign warning against trespassing is attached to a simple metal fence next to a concrete bank.
A fenced-off underpass in Charlotte, S.C. Robert Rosenberger

Hostile design isn’t always about objects; sometimes it involves actions, too.

Businesses and churches have been accused of regularly spraying water on potential sleeping spaces, sometimes via automatic sprinkler systems. Noise pollution can be another strategy, blasting loud music or annoying sounds to clear potential loitering places. Such was the case of a park in West Palm Beach, Florida, where the cloying children’s song “Baby Shark” was played along with other kids tunes each night.

Legal scholar Sarah Schindler argues that these kinds of hostile designs should be recognized as a form of regulation. As she puts it, “Regulation through architecture is just as powerful as law, but it is less explicit, less identifiable, and less familiar to courts, legislators, and the general public.”

Like the law, hostile architecture can have the effect of regulating people’s behaviors. But unlike the law, instances of hostile architecture are not subject to any kind of official oversight and often go unnoticed.

What’s there – and what’s not

Once you learn about hostile architecture, you start to see examples everywhere. But perhaps even more importantly, you also begin to notice the absence of certain items and services in public spaces.

A gray bench with pinhole designs and armrests separating it into three seats, positioned on a sidewalk.
A sidewalk bench with armrests in New York City. Robert Rosenberger

Rather than add armrests to a bench, the bench can be simply taken away. Trees can be removed to prevent loitering in the shade. Whole regions of cities are devoid of public restrooms, with options in private establishments available to paying customers only. Public space researcher Cara Chellew has come to refer to these conspicuously absent expected things as “ghost amenities.”

Hostile architecture, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. Just below the surface are the variety of laws that target particular behaviors: storing personal items in public space, loitering, panhandling and vagrancy. There are laws against sitting or lying down in public – so-called sit/lie laws. Anti-camping laws often apply not just to tents but to using any kind of covering at all, such as a blanket.

Even giving food to unhoused people is outlawed in some cities, if the individual or organization does not have a permit.

Two plastic trash cans with covers on a sidewalk next to a patch of grass.
Trash and recycle cans with rain hoods and padlocked casings in Philadelphia. Robert Rosenberger

The National Homelessness Law Center has been charting the increase in these kinds of laws across the United States. In a review of 187 cities from 2006-2019, the center found a 78% increase in sit/lie laws and a 103% increase in laws against vagrancy, loafing and loitering. There was also a 92% increase in camping bans.

Informal policies can also serve as de facto bans on homelessness, such as when police pressure unhoused people to move along.

Many shelters, where they exist, are not open during daytime hours, leaving people without housing no choice but to loiter or continue moving throughout the day.

At times, shelters themselves present roadblocks that discourage people from using their services, such as patterns of discrimination against LGBTQ+ patrons or policies that ban pets.

Stakes at SCOTUS

On their own, many of these laws or objects may seem unobjectionable, or at least not a big deal. How much should we care about a bench with armrests, or a park with rules prohibiting sleeping?

When taken in the aggregate, however, these things can function together to exclude the unhoused from public space entirely. None of them literally make homelessness a crime – but in critics’ eyes, these laws and patterns of design have the same effect. The court’s decision on Grants Pass v. Johnson will determine whether treating unhoused people as criminals is constitutional.

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