When a few years ago—under then-Mayor Denis Coderre—Cabot Square underwent a renovation, those who designed its new look had to reconcile different views on its character. While Cabot Sq. is partly located in a residential area, it is also a transit hub serving a shopping centre, a cinema complex, various stores, a big college, and office buildings.
The new Cabot Sq. was to accommodate the interests of a variety of people: residents who want to take a walk in the park, commuters waiting for buses, and—during the summer—the staging of artistic activities. However, Cabot Sq. had also become a meeting place for a group that would soon be recognized as an important presence in the area. Those people were mostly Inuit who stay at a Y facility at the old Reddy Memorial. They also received some services at a now-closed church nearby, and who during the day tend to hang out in the square. In the winter those people gather at the entrance of the Atwater station, in the summer they use the park as a place to stay, to relax, or even sleep.
It is at this point where the square becomes a temporary residence for homeless people when the benches, installed after the renovation of the square, became an issue. The benches are made of wood, with metallic partitions which would make it hard for anyone wanting to lay down on them. In other words, these pieces of urban furniture are designed as seats, and to use them to lay down or sleep is certainly discouraged.
This situation doesn’t go well with some, and indeed it has created heated debates in the social networks. For some, these benches are indications of discriminatory and even racist practices in our city. “The only place they can go, they have benches that clearly state this is not for you,” Nakuset, executive director of Native Women’s Shelter and Resilience Montreal said in an interview with City News. She also pointed out that the “controversial benches in Cabot Square are part of a wider problem.”
Certainly, the point she made is an interesting one, but not as much as to the benches themselves, but in suggesting that there is a “wider problem” on which she doesn’t elaborate, but it is obviously a reference to the various forms of systemic racism in our society. In this particular case, aiming at indigenous people.
However, in focusing on the design of the benches, the critical questions of racism and discrimination may go missing. The benches are designed to prevent people from laying down on them. All right. In principle that’s what park benches are for: they are not for sleeping. The real racist story here is that some people for the sad reason that they are homeless, and in this case, indigenous, are forced to spend their nights sleeping on a park bench. Recent attempts—sometimes with the best of intentions—to generate sympathy and acceptance of homeless people in parks, streets, metro stations, are resulting in what could indeed be described as a perverse effect: the normalization of homelessness. The question then is not park benches being “unfriendly” to homeless people, but the fact that this society is becoming used to people having no place to sleep. By accepting homelessness as a “normal” feature of urban life, people become desensitized to the drama behind this phenomenon. Even worse, if park benches become suitable for laying down, that would be a band-aid solution. What is needed instead are, in the short term, more shelters for the homeless complemented by community spaces where they can socialize, learn some skills, and get counselling and treatment for addiction when needed. In the long term, social housing. The option of sleeping in a park is itself a discriminatory practice that should not be accepted as “normal.” Let’s then separate, the essential—finding real solutions for homelessness—from the contingent—those urban artefacts that in the grand scheme of things are irrelevant.