'Bumbars' evict homeless from shared spaces


'Bumbars' by Chris JohnstonRecently I was waiting for a bus at Southern Cross Station in Melbourne. Normally Southern Cross is a hive of activity, with business people and well-dressed tourists everywhere. This time, however, it was early morning, and the place was deserted.

Well, almost deserted. A motley collection of people was sleeping in the waiting room while a few more had scattered themselves on some nearby seats. One young man was asleep sitting up, with his head on his knees. Someone else clutched a backpack. A young Vietnamese couple had laid out a bedroll underneath some benches.

At first I thought these people might have been backpackers, but then I realised that they were homeless. They are largely hidden during the day, but when mainstream Melbourne retreats to apartments and homes in the suburbs, the underclass emerges. The 'space' of inner Melbourne changes.

I caught my bus to the airport and several hours later was browsing a newspaper in Brisbane. One article caught my attention. It described how a local council was investigating ways to keep homeless people out of bus shelters. It was replacing the conventional seating in shelters with 'bumbars' — horizontal lengths of pipe that people can sit on or lean against, but which are impossible to lie down on.

This project had drawn criticism and praise. The council predictably said that pole seating would sweep southeast Queensland, while a spokesman from the Salvation Army was concerned about how it would affect homeless people. This discussion was largely practical. It did not consider how the construction and use of space reveals society's attitudes towards different groups of people.

The space that Southern Cross covers is designed to be used by the mainstream public. Its use by homeless people after hours is, for most people, irrelevant. Bus shelters are also a form of space intended for the majority. But they still provide shelter for homeless people — even if the people who designed and built them didn't intend this.

This shows that a social space can have different uses for a variety of social groups. So we must ask critical questions  when a space is altered so that it excludes certain groups. In northern Brisbane, the council has redesigned bus shelters so that they can be used only for public transport. Although this action may seem logical, it sends a distinct message to people who are homeless: you are excluded.

Why is the council sending this message?  Maybe it assumes that homeless people should not be part of society. But  homelessness is far more complex than this.

Tony Abbott recently suggested that some people choose to be homeless. This comment offers support for the belief that homeless people should be excluded. In reality, however, homelessness is rarely, if ever, a choice. People often become homeless because they are vulnerable to mental illness, drug abuse, alcoholism and family breakdown.

That is why our social and governmental reaction to homelessness should not be one of exclusion. Instead, we should try to include homeless people when we construct our social spaces. As trivial as it seems, the exclusion of homeless people through the use of 'bumbars' is the small face of a larger social problem.

Joshua Anderson is a law student at the University of Southern Queensland, and is the Coordinator of the volunteer program at the The Advocacy and Support Centre in Toowoomba.


Topic tags: josh anderson, homeless, choice, bumbars, bus shelters, brisbane, southern cross station, tony abbott



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Existing comments

This article exposes a dark side of societies, in other words, people, in other words, us, in other words, me. If mine is not "the hand that signs the paper" mine are the eyes I cover and the ears I block, the arms I do not stretch out.
Stephen Kellett | 22 March 2010

Heard wonderful program on the ABC several years ago where innovative architects had designed park benches which at night could be used for sleeping........very exciting and inclusive.

Also impressed by the woman who designed and manufactured bedrolls for the homeless....quite brilliant
Why must we/society/councils always accentuate the negative?
Why cant we have some well designed benches and bedrolls in an attempt to include everyone.

In Sth Korea there are large sheds for travellers which consist of benches where travellers go at night as they travel the country.

There must be ways in which we can accomodate the wanderers in our society

GAJ | 25 March 2010

It's not just the homeless, consider the elderly who need to rest their entire body weight on a seat, as do small children. What about mthers with babies and toddlers. Are we becoming a society that coniders only the needs of the fit, the young, the able and the affluent?
Winsome Thomas | 25 March 2010

If Councils take such positive action to recognise and EXCLUDE the homeless from bus shelters, are they not morally obligated to offer some ALTERNATIVE accommodation?
Bob GROVES | 25 March 2010

Some years ago in New York I noticed that the park seats were divided with a rail in the middle so that people couldn't sleep on them.
Hope we Aussies are more caring than that.
David Sykes | 25 March 2010

Ah, this explains the design of the seats in the bus stops for the new tram extension in Adelaide - promoted as a new tourist attraction.

Surely it can't be that hard to make shelters for people to sleep in?

Pauline Small | 25 March 2010

Perhaps we should bring back the rope. In Victorian times the homeless could avoid sleeping on damp or hard ground by paying to sleep leaning on a chest-high rope slung between the end walls of an otherwise unfurnished room. They had to be on alternate sides of the rope to keep it in the middle. At Southern Cross Station they could sling the rope after the last train and hide it away in the morning so the good citizens, with homes, would not be offended.
Michael Grounds | 25 March 2010

This is an indictment on our society, which does not address the problem as to why people are homeless, only moves them on.

So often we have seen the wonderful generosity of Australian people. Surely we can do more than this.
Helen-Mary Langlands | 28 March 2010

I hate to think what will happen when a Depression hits. I wonder how people who have gone bankrupt, lost their jobs, houses, families will be treated. All it takes is an economic collapse.
john | 03 November 2011


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