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There was an uproar recently followed by a social media campaign about some spikes that were placed outside a block of flats in West London.
The spikes, it seems, were placed there to prevent the location from becoming a pitch for homeless people by making it impossible to sleep there. The spikes were on the ground facing up. But this type of disregard for homeless people in London is nothing new.
I decided to explore some of the re-developments in London that have made it a more difficult place to sleep rough. I went to the City first. First, an alley in the city off Lombard St called Change Alley. What I noticed about Change Alley was that it had indeed changed since I last slept there some years ago.
Doorways had been pushed out so that steps were now flush with the pavement. Cameras were placed at intervals, which was intimidating. But the other thing I noticed was the apparent increase in blue and red signage, the forbidding words "Fire Exit Do Not Block" written in white lettering. They used not to be here but now they are, denying a sleeping location. What counts is the safety of the building dwellers and the smooth passage of suited City workers and tailored office johnnies.
Pope's Head Alley nearby used to be open to the air with habitable doorways where you could rest until first footfall in the morning. But this too has been developed. Open windows look into offices on your right and the 'Fire' signs are nailed to every doorway on your left in the alley, which is monitored by cameras. Another sign reads, 'It is against the law to smoke on these premises' and warns of a hefty fine.
The old City pitches become more barren as you reach the river and begin your trek along the Thames path. I did spot a few nice pitches still open around here. There is a passage that the Thames path follows, underneath Cannon St bridge, which is much as it was before the new developments.
But near here, part of the Thames walkway is closed off. It is a covered part, as I discovered there are now gates on every covered part of the path. Here there are no spikes, but the new gates do the same job. This was another popular location to sleep in summer when it was a bit warmer – now it seems pretty closed off.
Next up is the bridge at Blackfriars, a classic pitch for so many of London’s dispossessed over the years, but now so far redeveloped that would be impossible. The river walkway has been opened up from the brickwork that used to provide a base, and replaced with a long straight wall, so there’s no cover to sleep under.
I left the river path after Blackfriars and walked northwards up Temple Avenue and Bouverie Street towards Fleet Street. I saw few homeless people in this area. And few places to sleep. Alleys are guarded here by gates or security personnel or both. Doorways are flush with pavements and window ledges are spiked. The city doesn't want you in the same area as the law courts and the lawyers.
At last I find myself on the Strand and wondering about the Savoy Hotel. I remember seeing this place as a boy once, full of people, sleeping, swearing, talking, existing. Now I descend the steps at the end of York Buildings and pass down into Savoy Street. A few people remain here but they are not homeless. They are either workers from the Savoy or construction workers for the adjacent site. There are large iron gates here now, gates shut at night to protect the wealthy guests from the great unwashed.
Why, then, were people so upset about these spikes? We live in a city that is not friendly to the homeless. Old pitches are gated, communities of the dispossessed that once thrived in the alleys, bridges, passages and walkways have now been dispersed for safety or crime concerns. Places you could get a warm night's sleep are now barred.
This is a symptom of the way we have become blind to the homeless in this city. We are upset by spikes but erect gates. We 'feel' for them but will do nothing practical to help. Instead they are sidelined and marginalised in a society sedated by videogames and daytime TV.
I did see places to sleep on my walk, but not many. I did see homeless people too, and it made me wonder how many of them would be pacing the streets like ghosts tonight trying to find a decent pitch.
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