Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
An opt-in program in Odense aims to use the data to bring services to the homeless where they already congregate.
A Danish city is now tracking its homeless citizens via GPS. Allotting trackers to un-housed locals as part of a pilot program, Denmark’s third-largest city of Odense will now know exactly where they go, how they get there, and how long they stay.
It sounds intrusive, even dystopian, doesn’t it? Believe it or not, the thinking behind the plan is actually very positive and benign. Odense is gathering the information not to find ways to exclude the homeless, but to work out how it can make the city a better place for them to live in. By tracking where and when homeless people congregate, Odense can choose the best locations for benches and services such as coffee rooms and shelters provided by the municipality. Rather than using the police to force the homeless away from public sites, the city can instead bring services to them where they already are, encouraging full use of them and avoiding pointless, dehumanizing stand-offs.
The homeless participants (currently a core group of 20) are also very much on board, an enthusiasm perhaps helped by the three meals a day offered during the research period. “They are not at all paranoid,” says project coordinator Tom Rønning in the article linked above. “They want to contribute to the offers being made to them, so that we have peace and quiet in the city. It's lovely.” Denmark’s record on accommodating homeless people is pretty good, perhaps because this wealthy country (with a decent welfare safety net) still has relatively low levels of homelessness. Along with such simple, humane measures as founding a homeless cemetery in Copenhagen (its unofficial keeper is movingly profiled in this video), the country is taking steps to work out how homeless people’s lives could be improved, instead of merely hidden.
Such consideration for the homeless might come as a shock to those living in other countries. Just as in the United States, Europe’s cities often seem more interested in stigmatizing and excluding the homeless than helping them. Odense’s plans were balanced out by news this week from Madrid that Mayor Ana Botella plans to alter 4,000 city bus stops in order to make them impossible to sleep in. The idea is to replace existing bus shelter benches with new models with seat dividers, so that no one can lie flat on them to shelter from wet weather. In a city where Spain’s economic crisis has made thousands homeless, the decision is already sparking outrage. As this article notes, many are asking why, when funds for actually helping the homeless are so limited, the city is exerting itself to rustle up cash for a scheme that makes their lives just that much harder.
Madrid is far from alone in making this kind of move, of course. In some ways, it’s actually behind the times. This June, Londoners were similarly scandalized when the presence of “anti-homeless spikes” outside some of the city’s buildings was brought to their attention. These little shiny metal knobs (more studs than spikes) are screwed into the ground to make it impossible to sit or lie there. They’ve been likened to the anti-pigeon spikes that bristle on buildings to prevent birds from perching. Just like pigeon-discouraging pins, the spikes are a way of preserving a building’s tidy aesthetic by treating the homeless as vermin.
Thankfully, the spikes were seen as a step too far, and public outcry has led to many high-profile sites removing them. This can only be a good thing. When a city starts treating homelessness as an essentially aesthetic problem—when it makes hiding evidence of it a priority—its values are already starting to rot from within. If Odense’s plans can teach us anything, it’s that working with and listening to homeless people can create a better city for everyone.