Untold Stories

Secrets of the streets: Madrid’s anti-homeless architecture

2 December 2018
A bench with armrests in Lavapiés

Anti-homeless architecture is often disguised as useful features for pedestrians, but it secretly doubles up as defence against rough sleepers. Big money goes into making the most beautiful parts of Madrid hostile towards the homeless, and examples of these disturbing installations can be found everywhere you look. 

There are estimated to be over 2,500 homeless people living in Madrid. Just less than a thousand of them are routine rough sleepers, and the rest are the ‘hidden homeless’, who between sofa-surfing spend the odd night in one of Madrid’s few homeless shelters. If the shelters are full, they may roam the streets until morning, bedding down as a last resort.

State-run homeless shelters have beds for around 650 people per night across Madrid, although just last week Samur Social announced that it’d be providing an additional 539 beds per night during the winter months, totalling well over a thousand beds per night. Surely that’s enough to completely stop people sleeping in the streets, but sadly, it’s far more complicated than that.

The reported 919 people who routinely sleep in the streets have been doing so for years. At least half are foreigners – mostly Eastern European and African migrants – and almost half of all homeless people in Madrid also have serious, untreated mental health issues.

For many, sleeping on the streets is often preferred to shelters for numerous reasons: a struggle to adhere to the shelters’ strict rules, having to confront personal or mental health issues, and the belief – or sometimes even reality – that sleeping rough is actually safer than staying in a shelter.

As the nights get longer and colder, however, simply getting off the ground becomes a priority, and that’s when the hostility of Madrid truly emerges…

ANTI-HOMELESS BENCHES

Armrests cleverly disguised as adding comfort to the bench-user are in fact obstacles to lying down.

A bench with armrests in Lavapiés

Outside the Casino by metro Sevilla

The new benches along the recently pedestrianised Calle Carretas and the new Gran Vía have sloping angles. Their anti-rainwater feature also conveniently doubles up as sharp angles if slept on.

Concrete bench on Gran Vía

ANTI-HOMELESS BUS SHELTERS

Seats inside a bus stop, which were once a popular shelter for rough sleepers, are now impossible to lie down on.

A bus shelter on Gran Vía

Note the obstacle two thirds of the way along this bench:

A bus shelter by Atocha

HOSTILE WINDOW FRAMES

At Sol, you can find numerous examples of window frames decorated with defensive balls or sloped surfaces.

Corte Inglés on Sol

Puerta del Sol

HOSTILE ENTRANCES

These examples aren’t even subtle.

Anti-homeless spikes in Quintana

Anti-homeless spikes in Lavapiés

Calle Lavapiés

A young sub-Saharan man used to sleep in the sheltered entrance below. He was there for months, and even used the bars on the right-hand window as hooks for his jackets.

Flower boxes placed strategically

One day last year, I walked past and saw his belongings tied up inside a blanket he used to sleep on. Street cleaners were hosing down the entrance, and concrete flower boxes were installed later that week. This man is still homeless – he just sleeps elsewhere now.

HOSTILE BIKE RACKS

Bike racks stop homeless people sleeping in specific areas.

Outside the Reina Sofia

BANKIA

The branch of Bankia on Calle Duque de Alba once controversially erected a number of bollards in a corner routinely used by homeless people and has now walled up the corner entirely.

Bankia's earlier hostile bollards

Bankia

Imagine returning from a day of begging, wandering or even working to find spikes jutting out of the corner where you slept last night. You may feel the city’s message is loud and clear:

They should move on. They’re scaring tourists. They’re bad for business.

… said former mayoral candidate Esperanza Aguirre.

Under Madrid’s (update: ex) mayor, Manuela Carmena, millions of euros are being put into making Madrid’s urban landscape more friendly to pedestrians, yet secret defensive features continue to be rolled out – a symptom of a municipality that is torn between improving Madrid’s look and dealing with its hardest issues.

Anti-homeless architecture is a disturbing symptom of a city that, for a long time, has chosen to patch the leak rather than get to the root of the cause, but as winter draws in and Samur Social opens its doors to the most vulnerable, Madrid appears to be softening its subtly spiky exterior. In the town hall’s recent budget, almost €1.5 million was allocated to helping the homeless – far more than in previous years – and it’s partly thanks to you. How?

Manuela introduced Decide Madrid, an online system that gives the citizens of Madrid a voice. Here, you can propose ideas about how the town hall should allocate their budget, then vote for these proposals. In addition to pedestrianising Gran Vía and restricting traffic to the centre, Madrid chose to help the homeless.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

  • Talking about Madrid’s darker issues is the first step; it raises awareness of the issues our city faces and, because of this, it’s starting to look like we, as a city-wide community, really can make a difference to those who desperately need it.
  • Sign the Change.org petition here to help to urgently approve the Royal Decree-Law that nobody should be homeless.
  • Follow the twitter stories of the current homeless camp on Paseo del Prado here.

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4 Comments

Phil 12 January 2019 at 6:19 pm

Fantastic article, it mirrors the exact same problems that are faced here in the UK. Very well written and highlights so many obstacles rough sleeper’s face trying to find a safe and dry place to sleep. Thanks for sending it to me.

Reply
Clare 18 September 2019 at 7:41 pm

Thanks Leah, that’s really interesting.
The doorway of the block of flats where a friend lives in Southwark (London) was featured in the news a few years ago as they installed anti-homeless spikes. Lots of people protested, so they were removed soon after. If only they’d spent the money on helping people, they could have achieved much more.

Reply
Marty 6 October 2019 at 10:01 am

Quite a few homeless sleep in plaza Pedro zero love which is where my daughter lives in an apartment overlooking the square. They have their mattresses and sleeping bags stored in the shrubbery surrounding the square. It’s heartbreaking to see them in the early morning. The police were round this morning talking with some who were up and about and my daughter tells me they mostly leave them be. They don’t cause any bother ( other than a strong smell of urine) but it is so sad and I was shocked at the tactics employed to keep them from sleeping in areas around the centre. In Belfast where I’m from, on cold nights there are volunteers out with food donated from local cafes and also volunteers from church soup kitchens go out at the weekends. I understand at home there are enough beds for all the homeless but many choose not to use the facilities for the same reasons as in Madrid. Its a very sad situation but heartening that Madrid’s citizens chose to ask town hall to help these people.

Reply
Marty 6 October 2019 at 10:03 am

That’s plaza Pedro Zerolo –

Reply

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