Shades of homelessness

This coming week, on the 21st-22n of January as part of FREUMh, Fabrizio is going to present at the conference HOUSED by CHOICE HOUSED by  FORCE : Homes, Conflicts and Conflicting Interests. The paper titled Forced to live dead in public space: an experiment of democracy in Rome will discuss the ongoing research project taking place in St Peter’s Sq, Rome and dealing with homelessness and public space. In particular, the aim of the paper is twofold: First, it is to outline a manifested desire to house homeless people that we recorded during the research phase and throughout the interviews we had. Second, to discuss about the methodology we adopted, highlighting how theory fits into practice.

With regards to the first aspect, during the interviews we had with stakeholders (charitable bodies, passers-by in St Peter’s Sq., general public and homeless people) something that can be described as a contrasting view emerged. On the one hand, the idea that to house homeless people into abandoned buildings can be a solution to homelessness. On the other, the aspect with community that emerged during the encounters with a group of people who sleep rough utilising a portico area nearby St Peter’s Sq., with whom we collaborated for the project.

The paper that will be presented at the conference in fact argues about the very fact that housing homeless people into abandoned buildings is not a solution. It is rhetoric and may manufacture political clashes- with the proviso that for political we intend what has to do with the polis, that is the city and its dwellers. The paper’s aim is to define a right to the city, in the sharing of public space and a right to be housed as an issue that does not afflict only homeless people but a larger part of excluded people. In this respect we believe the project we carried out defines a different modality of architectural activism. One that does not deploy acts of protest as a mechanism of inclusion. Rather it seeks for a dialogue, bringing to light aspects that are hidden and that can determine more mutual relationships among individuals.

A few example to explain this. During the interviews we were having with a group of cultural outsiders (people who are not directly involved in activities concerning homelessness), these were stating or better asking “why does a homeless person deserve a house more than a mother of two who cannot afford to buy a house and is forced to live at their parents?”. As FREUMh we could ask the same question to ourselves. We are both carrying out PhD studies, both got our degrees in architecture and yet, we both cannot afford to buy a house. That is to say, perhaps the question with housing people is a wider one and homeless people are the most visible side. Of course, one may be tempted to argue that we are surely in a privileged condition than a homeless person. However, all this discourse outlines one main concern, solutions are rhetorical. Solutions manufacture exclusions! The pictures below can give a sense of what we are arguing.

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Comments to the article
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Article’s title: Ferratella, ex-school Comisso cleaned up: it will host 30 homeless people

It entails comments on an article appeared in an electronic newspaper. The article describes the project that has turned an abandoned school in Rome into a hostel for homeless people. Comments however are not in the vein of welcoming the project. The first comment for instance is from a father whom daughters’ school is falling into decay. Literally translated the comment says: “in my daughters’ school, walls are dirty and falling into decay. Floors are dangerous and with missing tiles substituted by cardboard. Parents provide for toilette paper in as much as we also bought the blackboard and we are going to pay for the music class, despite it is a compulsory course. And I pay a hell of taxes! Is it normal?…” The third commenter instead says: “left-wing people, always looking for visibility (left wing party is suffering a major political crisis due to scandals that involved Rome city council). When are you going to deal with unemployed people who were evicted, divorced fathers, unemployed who live in cars or at friends and parents’ houses? …”

That is to say, a project that aimed to be a solution for a group of homeless people became the centre of a political issue. A tension between people who are perhaps experiencing similar issues and feel themselves as excluded from a wider discourse.

Giorgio Colli in La Nascita della Filosofia, (the birth of philosophy) outlines in fact how in ancient Greece the centre was the ideal place where democracy was practiced. He describes how the idea of a centre is not the one of being occupied but rather to remain empty. Democracy to be transversal and ubiquitous, that is to serve people, has to be regarded as an empty space. Solutions instead tend to occupy the centre, representing one point of view which is furthermore bearer of a rhetoric. Solutions may be appealing only for a restricted number of people, excluding many others.  Additionally, in the optic of homelessness and people who are in need,  as reported also by a census carried out by Manuela Braga from University  Bocconi, Milan the dependancy from services such as free meals or hostels may become chronic, particularly in subjects who are experiencing for the first time the issue of finding themselves as homeless. This aspect was confirmed by Mauro, one of the people who inhabit the portico area in St Peter’s Sq. He stated how, if on the one hand he keeps looking for jobs on the other many of his friends has simply given up to the idea of living on the street and relying on charitable services, e.g. clothes and food.

The second aspect the conference paper aims to highlight is the community. Judith Butler in Can one lead a good life in a bad life?, reporting the example of Jews in concentration camps outlines how scarcity determines conditions of mutual support and solidarity among people. In this respect, the aspect of being a community based on mutual support emerged during the encounters we had with the people who inhabit the portico area nearby St Peter’s Sq. These people do not simply share a space to sleep rough over night. Rather they share almost everything. From money they collect from passers-by to food. The space was in fact described as a refuge- a place where one can feel secure among people who are kin to one another.

One of the encounters with the community of rough sleepers in St Peter’s Sq
Food donated to me last July 2015 by Dario, one of the inhabitants of the portico

However, the social structure that we appreciated by getting in touch with this group of people is, to use Butler’s words “useless suffering” if it remains unnoticed to the majority of other people we interviewed who are not rough sleepers. Once, during the presentation of the project to Konrad Krajewski, the Papal almoner, I was describing this group of people as a community. I was suddenly stopped and said that these people are just individuals who utilise the portico to sleep rough.

Useless suffering, as argued by Butler implies a twofold aspect that give the sense to the paper’s title: First, an absence of the value characterising the social structure which is present below the portico area. This is what, according to Butler designates a life that is considered not life, or only partially-living, or already dead. Second, the perceived absence of value determines attitudes towards homeless people that can be described as charity, e.g. allowing homeless people to sleep rough by using the portico, or giving them some coins and move away.

Therefore, the theory that informed our approach to the project we developed was the one of a dialogue with the dead- homeless people are spectres. Following Davide Susanetti’s account on rituals concerning the consultation of spectres in ancient Greece, we thought about an inversion of the gaze: “Spectres are the only true plane of reality while the events are just shadows of a metaphorical theatre.”


The concept was to share this object while provoking questions with regards to the liminal and contentious sharing of the space of the portico. This project explores several themes: First, the democracy of public space. It attempts to transform the portico from a public space of exclusion into a space of encounter for diverse social and cultural actors. Second; democracy as not simply determined by an abundance of solutions. Rather, democracy must be built through dialogue. This object establishes a dialogue due to its fragility. It demands that users take care of it, and by doing so, the user indirectly takes care of a remote other. The project aims at manufacturing a network of involved people. The third theme is concerned with a witnessed indifference towards social injustice with regards to the production of social waste. The materiality of the object, recycled cardboard, extends a metaphor: Production of social waste has potential to remediate and convert new sets of relationships.

To conclude this long post, we follow on Butler’s account that, in order to lead a good life in a bad life, we have to create the conditions for people to dialogue. This is neither to affirm one side or the other but to allow people to manufacture a network. This is why we insist on manufacturing a dialogue that could lead to the definition of a common. A common good that can transcend social and cultural (and political) differences.







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