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Interview with Charlotte Renouprez about anti-homeless architecture in public space

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As part of the World Day of Social Justice, Fedactio is addressing the issue of homelessness and social exclusion in Belgium. On this occasion, Mrs Charlotte Renouprez, one of the founders of the non-profit organization ArtiCulE and the DesignForEveryone project, agreed to answer our questions.

On February 20th, we will celebrate the World Day of Social Justice. This day will be an opportunity for Fedactio to promote a society based on equal rights and the possibility for all human beings to benefit from social and economic progress, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, age, disability or social status. This means ensuring dignity, stability and opportunity for all citizens. Therefore, Fedactio decided to address the issue of social exclusion and more specifically homelessness. Although it is difficult to obtain precise figures, the latest count carried out in 2014 by La Strada (a support centre based in Brussels that helps homeless people) recorded more than 2,600 homeless people on the streets of Brussels. Today, there are far more cases of anti-homeless architecture than we think. The DesignForEveryone project aims to neutralize these devices and raise public awareness of the issue.

Fedactio: Could you present us your project DesignForEveryone?

Charlotte R.: DesignForEveryone questions how public space planning includes or excludes some users and especially the homeless. Initially, it was an initiative of Laurent and I, both professionals in continuing education. We have been active since September 2018, but we started to question ourselves after Angela Merkel's visit to Brussels in 2017. At this occasion, the homeless were asked to leave and fences were placed. With a group of citizens, this event was the starting point for our reflection on the use of public space. This was the moment we decided that we had to re-appropriate public space and allow citizens and passers-by to realize that these fences, armrests or spikes are not innocent. To do so, we decided to create the non-profit organization ArtiCulE for Art, Culture and continuing Education. The idea is to organize artistic and cultural events to question social reality while promoting continuing education. DesignForEveryone is only one of the NPO's projects, but we intend to develop our activities. In addition to interventions in the public space, we also organize photo exhibitions which constitute another facet of the project.

Do you want to provoke questions about social precariousness?

Yes, we want but not only on social precariousness. Above all, we want to raise awareness about the type of responses given to this situation. Anti-homeless architecture does not constitute an appropriate response. They constitute a security response that does not solve the problem of social precariousness at all, but only displaces it. The homeless remain on the streets. There are other responses, structural measures such as rent control or the fight against the precariousness of employment, that could allow the homeless to leave the street or even prevent people from ending there. Instead of giving real solutions, this type of hostile architecture only makes life on the street even more difficult.

What is your modus operandi? How do you proceed during your interventions?

First, we identify a place where the desire to prevent people from staying, lying down, sitting down, etc. is explicit. We also need to have the skills to intervene because neither Laurent nor I are designers. To get a good result, we take measurements and photos. Then, we build a structure in our workshop and once it is ready, we install it. We take advantage of social networks: until now our structures stay in place only a few hours, so it is thanks to social networks, the media, all the videos that circulate that we can have a certain visibility and that people become aware of the existence of these pieces of architecture. Without social networks it might make less sense.

Do you make it a priority to avoid damaging public space?

Absolutely. We do not want to do anything that would be illegal. Our goal is not to damage anything. Our objective is above all to provoke reflection, which is why we leave a word of explanation at each of our interventions. We are often asked why we do not speak directly to the public authorities. We reply to that remark that, in our opinion, public awareness has a greater impact. Our objective is to make the invisible visible, such as the deceitful side of this type of architecture. Behind these measures lies a certain vision of society and a certain desire to exclude the most disadvantaged.

Do you have partnerships? Are synergies being developed with other associations or professionals?

It is a will. We would also like to meet professionals working in the homelessness sector who know this environment better than we do. We have developed the idea around continuing education and questioning, but we want to see the project grow and reach more professionals. Moreover, the last person who joined us has a background as a designer. In addition, this Saturday, February 23rd, we will attend the General Assembly of "Droit à un toit" (https://droitauntoit-rechtopeendak.brussels) by invitation of DoucheFlux, an association based in Anderlecht that offers showers for homeless people. As it is an open assembly, many field actors will address the issue of housing and homelessness. We will lead a working group on the neutralization of anti-homeless architecture, an opportunity to meet people who work on the same issues, such as "Job Dignity" [Editor's note: project incubator for homeless women]. We do not work directly together, but we keep in touch. We are also in contact with La Strada. We are putting things into place.

So generally speaking, would you say you receive support?

Overall, the support we receive is quite positive. However, some people do not understand our approach and tell us: “I don't want to have a stinking homeless person next to me while I am waiting for the subway". It is interesting receiving this type of comments, as we can deconstruct them after. We sometimes receive very negative emails from people who tell us: “you should spend your time doing useful things.” Then, after some discussions, they understand our approach and find it interesting. We could qualify our approach as educational.

Can you tell us a bit more about the "Pics d’Or”?

The Fondation Abbé-Pierre [Editor's note: French foundation of public utility for the housing of the disadvantaged] invited us to the “Pics d’Or” ceremony, which awards ironic prizes to the "best" anti-homeless architecture in order to denounce their horror. In Paris, anti-homeless architectures are more violent than in Brussels, where they are sneakier. The Fondation Abbé-Pierre invited us to make a presentation during the ceremony and present our activities. After the ceremony, we took up a small challenge by redesigning one of the "rewarded" anti-homeless architecture.

Some installations are justified by hypocritical arguments such as "armrests for comfort, fences for safety...". Are you confronted by this type of argument?

As far as armrests are concerned, we have often been told that it allows people with reduced mobility and the elderly to support themselves to get up, except that most armrests are only two centimeters high and therefore do not help these people. A tunnel had also been completely blocked for safety reasons because many homeless people were sleeping in it. However, local residents had set up a solidarity network to offer them food. There are clearly much more positive initiatives than destroying or preventing access to certain areas of public space.

Could you present your exhibition in a few words?

We asked two photographers to take a look at the urban planning in Brussels. The idea is to take the time to think about the consequences of these developments on living together. A first edition was organised at the Brass'Art in Molenbeek, during which we received about a hundred visitors within a weekend. The visitors were very enthusiastic and told us that before the exhibition, they did not wonder about the layout of the public space but after seeing our photos, they had opened their eyes to this problem. For us, it is a victory.

A second exhibition will take place at our partners' premises in Garcia Lorca (Rue des Foulons 47/49, Brussels). The opening will take place on March 16 at 6:30 pm and the exhibition will take place from March 17 to 21. Guided tours will be organised by "Les équipes populaires", a non-profit organization of the Christian Workers’ Movement. You will find all the information on the website of our non-profit organization ArtiCulE: https://bit.ly/2BK2I6E

By highlighting the issue of social exclusion, Fedactio aims to contribute to a more cohesive and inclusive society. It was important for us to cover this World Day by presenting field actors trying to raise awareness on a daily basis among the Belgian population about the problem of homelessness, as well as urban policies that contribute to strengthening the social exclusion of homeless people. Our Federation pursues common objectives through its platforms "Social Cohesion and Dialogue" and "Solidarity and Humanitarian Aid" and it is therefore logical that we put forward such initiatives which, by raising collective awareness, can only have a positive impact on this type of societal issues. Like the DesignForEveryone collective, let's act for a fairer world.

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