Anti-homeless studs have been around for years and are part of a wider problem, say experts

Andrew Horton/ Worldview Media

Pictures of 'anti-homeless studs' went viral over the weekend, causing a furore on Twitter.

The images, originally posted by Andrew Horton of World View Media, provoked a discussion about the most humane way to address homelessness.

Many have called for the studs to be banned. "Would I want to see the studs removed? Yes! But more than that, I want to like to see something bigger happen," Horton wrote on his blog. "I don't want this to just be seen as 'socially unacceptable'. I'd like it to be 'legally unacceptable' as well.

"If we're serious about trying to transform this country for the good, then we can start by looking after our most vulnerable. Not just retweeting about it, actually doing something greater."

"Sadly, this type of action appears to show either a lack of understanding as to the actual problem of homelessness or at worst a disregard for those who are homeless – highlighting a lack of proper provision for the homeless in some Local Authorities," said a spokesperson for Green Pastures, a social enterprise based in Southport.

"There are no ways in which a homeless person should be hidden from sight...They are part of society and should be provided for."

So should we be campaigning for the studs to be removed? Or address the wider issue of the way in which society engages with homelessness?

First things first – these spikes are not a new innovation. If you start to pay attention, you will see spikes, bumps, cacti and other measures designed to stop homeless people from settling in certain areas. Most are purposefully subtle – arms built into the middle of a park bench might seem innocuous for example, but they are designed that way to prevent homeless people from sleeping on them. Other measures to 'move people on' include jet washing and noise pollution.

"I've been aware of things like this for 10 years or more," says Alastair Murray of Housing Justice. "In some building design they've included spikes/bumps in the design of the building. In planning terms they call it 'designing out' anti-social behaviours – rough sleeping is counted as anti-social behaviour. I think the police / city authorities may be trying to encourage planners and designers to do things like this."

Murray believes that such preventative measures are addressing a symptom rather than a cause, and serve to merely move the problem on; it's the physical expression of saying 'not in my doorway'.

Rough sleeping is on the rise, he says, because the benefit system is "inadequate", we are not creating enough affordable housing and advice and other support services are being reduced. These are the questions we should be focusing on.

"We as a society have to say, 'Why are there so many people sleeping rough in this rich country, why can't we sort out a more co-ordinated and compassionate response to the most vulnerable people in society?'" he adds.

"We recognise that for neighbourhoods it is not ideal if there is a large group of rough sleepers in the area. The difficulty is that for some people there is very limited help available, especially for Europeans and Non-EU people here without status."

Murray continues by underlining the vulnerability of homeless people, who often suffer from drug or alcohol addiction and mental health problems. "They are already alienated from society, already a very vulnerable group in society – what sort of message do [things like studs] give?" he asks.

"From a church point of view, we would like to see urban churches responding to the need locally. For individual Christians, it's a difficult one – people don't necessarily think it's an easy thing to do to just go up to a homeless person and start a conversation. Creating space for church volunteers to meet with people who have experience of homelessness via night shelters and community drop-ins has been very effective.

"That's what the church can offer – helping people to heal within a community," he finishes.

Corin Pilling, who works for the Cardinal Hume Centre, speaking in a personal capacity, says he is encouraged that the furore surrounding the studs has put homelessness back on the public agenda.

"I'm heartened that consensus has largely dictated the need for action which isn't focused on merely removing a visible problem, but responds to homeless rough sleepers in a manner which is both compassionate and just. It's a call to once again recognise the humanity in each individual impacted by homelessness rather than reducing them to a problem to be solved," he says.

"On the surface, the spikes seem like a brutal, almost medieval response to the most vulnerable in our communities, sending a clear message of 'We don't want you here'...We are forced to look at how our communities cope with an ongoing issue that is deeply complex and seems difficult to solve."

Pilling says it's a "scandal" that anyone is forced to sleep rough, and highlights the importance of a compassionate response to those in need.

"From a Christian perspective, the most important question this reflects back to us is 'Who is my neighbour?'" he contends.

"If my neighbour is on my door step and is living in a way that I judge to be harmful, or is a nuisance to me, how can I engage with that with integrity? My hope is that as Christians we can be consistent in seeing each homeless person, as image bearers of God; the exact reverse view of the 'person as a problem'."

He concludes, "This should always form our response, regardless of how we engage with the biblical mandate to actively respond in the charities we choose to support, in lobbying for greater justice in these areas, or indeed, our active involvement".

If you see somebody sleeping rough, No Second Night Out provide a rapid response and can be called on 0870 3833333.

Petition the government to eradicate homelessness by signing Tearfund's Rough Night? campaign here.