17 inch-long pigeon spikes – out of sight, out of mind

I was happy this morning and then I thought about the spikes that I had read about last week. Those 17-inch spikes didn’t improve my mood. They are symbols of how successful the neo-liberal period has been in dissolving the sense of collective will in our societies. We have been indoctrinated by the capitalists, their servant politicians, and the think tanks and co-opted media to believe that we are all in this for what we can get whereas in the full employment period after World War II we were all in it together. Now we think someone who is unemployed or homeless is in that state because of their own failing whereas we used to understand it was because their were not enough jobs and an individual was powerless to alter that overall lack of spending in the economy. It needed strong government intervention to resolve the issue. Now we consider the homeless are to be treated like pigeons!

I took this photo this morning outside my office in Melbourne. Nasty little spikes that are designed to keep the birds (pigeons mainly) away from the window sills. They are incredibly effective. The birds, of-course, have wings and can fly somewhere else and are probably not very inconvenienced.

The following pictures were published at the – Ethical Pioneer twitter account last week.

They are part of a growing trend in Britain in buildings to make it impossible for anyone to loiter much less bunk down for the night in absence of anywhere else that is a little sheltered.

These nasty spikes were taken at the front of a luxury apartment building in Southwark Bridge Road and the press report says the spikes are “17 inch-long metal studs embedded in the floor of the alcove next to the doorway” (Source).

They are to stop homeless people seeking shelter there.

The British Department for Communities and Local Government define Rough Sleepers as:

People sleeping, about to bed down (sitting on/in or standing next to their bedding) or actually bedded down in the open air (such as on the streets, in tents, doorways, parks, bus shelters or encampments). People in buildings or other places not designed for habitation (such as stairwells, barns, sheds, car parks, cars, derelict boats, stations, or “bashes” which are makeshift shelters, often comprised of cardboard boxes).

Increasingly, they will be lying on nasty spikes that hurt them.

The definition does not include people in hostels or shelters, people in campsites or other sites used for recreational purposes or organised protest, squatters or travellers.

I added the second paragraph to the definition to ensure it keeps up with current trends.

The Department has been publishing annual data since 2010 for rough sleeping counts, but are different to the more comprehensive data available from the – Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) database – collected by London-based homeless charity ‘St Mungo’s Broadway’.

The difference is primarily related to the fact that Broadway count all individuals who were seen sleeping rough over a period of one year (from April 1 to March 32), whereas the DCLG provides a snapshot over a two month period (October 1 to November 30).

The CHAIN data is summarised in the Broadway publication – Street to Home Report. The latest edition is the – Street to Home Annual Report 2012/13 – Bulletin and the Full Annual Report.

It reports on the CHAIN database, which is “the most detailed and comprehensive source of information available about rough sleeping”.

The following graph shows the raw counts of rough sleepers (blue bars) and the number per 1 million population in England (red line – RHS).

There has been a sharp rise since the election of the Conservative government in 2010.

In the decade leading up to the GFC, the number of rough sleepers fell in England as a result of intervention programs. There were less young people sleeping on the streets as homelessness legislation made this cohort a priority.

Broadway try to distinguish between those who have no “primary need” and those who have one or more needs (such as alcohol and substance abuse issues, mental health issues).

They estimate that around “The proportion of first-time rough sleepers without any support needs is significant, at 23 per cent. Among this group, the primary need is generally for accommodation and, for most, also work.”

There was a report in 1990 (Professor John Greve, Homelessness in Britain, February 1990) that found that homelessness is driven by young people falling out with their parents and unemployment. Studies throughout the decades have implicated joblessness as a primary reason for people being homeless and living on the streets.

Unemployment makes it hard for a person to sustain accommodation. But then not having accommodation makes it harder to get a job should one be available. It is a dual edge problem and one of the major advantages of a Job Guarantee program.

A person does not have to lose their accommodation if they lose a job in the private sector. They can immediately start work in the Job Guarantee and maintain sufficient income to meet their immediate needs.

Broadway also estimated that in 2007, 18 per cent of “first-time rough sleepers” had “had a mental health problem combined with a drug or alcohol support need”.

There was an interesting briefing document on – Rough Sleeping (England) – prepared by the British House of Commons, which provides a good overview of the problem.

The previous Labour Government had set a target of zero rough sleeping by 2012 and allocated significant funds to the alleviate the problem:

– helping with rents

– expanding street rescue teams

– helping find jobs and accommodation

The strategy was partially successful in holding the numbers relatively constant but needed more funds directed at job creation opportunities for the most disadvantaged that could work and housing support for those who were unable to work (due to multiple needs).

The downward trend was arrested quite sharply when the Conservative government came into office in 2010. It wasn’t so much that the fiscal austerity led to major cuts in the support for homelessness.

It was more a matter of unemployment rising substantially and the funding not being commensurately increased to deal with the larger problem.

Further, consistent with the neo-liberal bias towards setting up ‘competition’ the funding was diverted into a “payment for results” scheme where charities competed among themselves to set up new projects.

But there were cuts to Housing Benefit entitlements in the June 2010 Fiscal Statement and the October 2010 Spending Review and phased in from April 2011. The cuts meant that the housing market dried up for the most disadvantaged who had relied on the benefit. Evictions rose sharply.

The impacts of those changes are documented in the – Battered, broken, bereft – why people still end up rough sleeping.

In the following year, rough sleeping rose by 43 per cent.

Other cuts to welfare payments (such as Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) or Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)) also exacerbated the problem. The – High Cost to Pay – report published by Homeless Link, is a despairing account.

The narrative was like reading about the way successive Australian governments punished the unemployed with fines and other inhumane stunts.

Just as the UK charities are now competing in the new industry of unemployment and homeless, the same thing happened in Australia. They signed up to the Federal governments various incarnations of the privatised public employment service – formerly the Job Network and now Job Services.

These welfare agencies became co-opted by the Federal governments ’employability agenda’ and became part of the ‘industry’ that manages the mass unemployment and its related pathologies (including homelessness) that the neo-liberal macroeconomic policy stances produced.

Among the other ‘crimes against humanity’ that these agencies have committed is breaching, where the agency reports a person on income support benefits to the federal government department overseeing the whole nasty system for failing to satisfy some aspect of the pernicious work test regime and the result is the person loses their benefits for some period.

Schizophrenics who are episodic when they are meant to be attending an “interview” with their case managers, homeless people who fail to receive the notification of the “interview” dominate the queue of those who are breached by our national government. It is an abomination that both sides of politics have created and overseen.

A large religious charity, Mission Australia is on the record as supporting breaching as a “tool” to manipulate the unemployed.

In evidence to the Standing Committee on Education and Employment (April 18, 2011) which was considering the – Social Security Legislation Amendment (Job Seeker Compliance) Bill 2011, the Mission Australia head told the Committee that:

In terms of the amendments, we think that they will certainly strengthen the Job Services Australia contract and assist employment providers by encouraging job seekers to properly engage with the system. That is the core of what we believe-that these amendments will be a tool that will help us to better engage job seekers.

So even those who claim their mission is to help the poor have been co-opted by this neo-liberal system. Billions of dollars of public money have been pumped into these agencies under the pretence they are helping the unemployed regain jobs. The success record is appalling.

The fact is that the unemployed cannot search for jobs that are not there – no matter how motivated they are, or how scared they are of losing their miserly income support.

We have all been co-opted by neo-liberalism in some way, if only by our reticence and tacit support of the system. Some are more compromised than others. The front-line troops are the welfare support agencies who have taken contracts from the Government as part of the ‘unemployment industry’.

Homeless Link in the UK reports that:

… more young homeless people receive sanctions, as well as those with mental health issues, substance use issues and learning difficulties. For homeless people facing these challenges, it can be particularly difficult to meet the conditions of the benefits system, or to understand the consequences of non- compliance.

Homeless people are most commonly sanctioned because they have not attended a Jobcentre Plus advisory interview or failed to follow a jobseeker’s direction – a formal instruction to take a certain action to find work. Although, like all claimants, homeless people are expected to comply with benefits requirements, being homeless can make this more difficult.

When claimants are sanctioned, they will lose the ‘personal allowance’ element of their JSA or ESA until the sanction is over.

And then we read the homeless person “experience food poverty because of sanctions”. So the Government is happy they starve.

In this blog – L’horreur economique – I reviewed a disturbing book written by the French writer Viviane Forrester.

In her 1996 book called L’horreur Economique about unemployment (you can get the 1999 English version – HERE – essential reading) – she proposed that governments are failing to generate enough employment but at the same time they are promoting a backlash against those who are jobless.

Viviane Forrester says that:

The panaceas of work-experience and re-training often do nothing more than reinforce the fact that there is no real role for the unemployed. They come to realize that there is something worse than being exploited, and that is not even to be exploitable …

The book ventures into the notion that governments (elected by us) have made the unemployment dispensable to ‘capitalist production and profit’ and have instead been content to keep them alive. But soon, why would it not be implausible to declare this growing group of disadvantaged citizens totally irrelevant.

So when the unemployed also become aged or homeless – what then? We allow our neo-liberal governments to claim there is not enough ‘money’ to solve all these problems. We allow local councils to approve the erection of nasty spikes to keep the unemployed and homeless out of our sights.

But if the unemployed and homeless are ultimately dispensable for capitalist production (and that is what persistent long-term unemployment suggests); and they cannot do anything productive if we employ them in the public sector (that is the overwhelming view of the deficit terrorists); and they are a nuisance to manage (you know all the arguments – income support corrupts etc) – then ultimately society might start asking “what is the point of the unemployed?”.

The is the disturbing question that Viviane Forester poses.

She postulates that then different solutions might be advanced such as getting rid of them altogether. Don’t think this is off the track … after all only 70 odd years ago Germany decided that a definable cohort was dispensable and could be exterminated.

L’horreur Economique is one of those books that you just go back to from time to time to remind yourself of the message.

Spikes today, something even more sinister tomorrow.


The Australian government’s latest stunt is to top their previous socio-pathological policy of breaching with a new innovation. In the May Fiscal Statement they determined that unemployed people under 30 will not get any income support for six-months after losing their job and if they are under 25, they only qualify for Youth Allowance which is less than the adult unemployment payment, once they have served their 6 months without payment.

I remind people that the adult unemployment benefit is well below the poverty line and the gap between it and the poverty line has been widening in the last decade.

The Social Services Minister, the very nasty Kevin Andrews told the press when the decision was announced that:

This is about ensuring that we encourage young people under the age of 30 to get into work, and if they’re not working, to get the qualification or training necessary to get a job. (Source)

I guess they will start trialling pigeon spikes which seems to be the way to go in Britain.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2014 Bill Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Bill, I think you may have misread the story a bit.

    They aren’t 17-inch spikes, they’re (at least) 17, one-inch long spikes.

    Doesn’t change any of the conclusions you draw, of course.


  2. The currency users (municipalities, provinces, states etc) are at the mercy of the currency issuers (national level governments) were it comes to providing the solution to this growing problem.
    I have yet to hear any politician in a currency user level of government tell the electorate in clear language that the choices they have are between increasing unemployment, poverty, homeless people or raising taxes because the currency issuing level of government refuses to use the power they have to correct this insanity.

  3. When animals kill and consume or abandon their young we know there is some cause,usually stressors in the environment.

    What is the excuse of our Cretins in Charge?

  4. Dr. Mitchell…I was struck by how in America we are having the identical response to neo-liberalism-and your brilliant metaphor re pigeon spikes-with some on our radical right saying the unemployed are “lazy and don’t want to work”-unlike Australia, however, we did not have our “Golden Age” following WWII-with the pent-up desire for consumer goods, combined with the hysteria of McCarthyism [which lingers to this day]-our full employment mandate was never implemented. Thought you would enjoy the following:

    President Obama/Council of Economic Advisers:


    Following WW II, President Truman signed into law the [FULL] EMPLOYMENT ACT of 1946, to provide employment for our returning troops.

    Ironically, half-way around the world, Australia codified into their law an almost identical Bill, and for the same reason-

    Difference is-Australia actually put their law into effect, and over the next 30 years it was intrinsic to employment policy in Australia that “anybody wanting to work should be able to find a job”-and save for a brief recession in 1961/62 their unemployment was 2%, or less. This period is still referred to as their “Golden Age”, in Australia.

    Unforeseen by either country, however, in the mid-1970’s the world economy underwent a major paradigm shift as a result of the colliding forces of automation, globalization, technology, etc., reaching a critical mass-in brief, an adjustment towards modernity-From a perverse perspective, we became victims of our success….

    The instability caused by this transition, however, resulted in a malaise, and ushered in the ill-winds of greed-driven neo-liberalism with its indifference to unemployment, and the likes of Thatcher and Reagan-and the menace of this greed-driven agenda was exploded by Bush II, resulting in obscene disparities in wealth that persists, and is the cause of much friction between right and left, to this day.

    It also ushered in high and pervasive unemployment throughout our market-driven economies, the OECD-with 6% unemployment in Australia now the norm, and double-digit unemployment common throughout the Eurozone, to this day.

    As a result of the “malaise”, however, the U.S. took an aggressive, pro-active role in addressing the, above, economic shift-and in 1978 President Carter signed into law one of the most important laws in the 20th Century–an expansion of President Truman’s full employment, i.e., Pro-Market 15 USC ยง 3101–which “authorizes” the creation of a “reservoir of public employees” at any time our unemployment in America exceeds “3%”-

    But in spite of 3% unemployment being the threshold point above which unemployment starts undermining the Market-

    And deficit-neutral HR 870/The Neighbor-To-Neighbor Job Creation Act-A federally mandated Social Insurance, owned by our employed, to provide a fund to hire/train our unemployed-

    But in spite of these deficit-neutral, Pro-Market solutions-this Law has never been implemented.

    Jim Green, Democrat opponent to Lamar Smith, Congress, 2000

  5. SJ, odd, but I so wanted to accept the 17-inch fact that I decided they must be embedded 16 inches into the concrete. Hmm, why then, I thought? Oh, to stop the miserable paupers from clawing them out of the hardened concrete with their shabby fingernails and luxuriate on that “flat concrete” mattress.

  6. Unemployed people have two choices. Find a job that does not exist or lock themselves into a HECS debt they will carry for life – and still remain either unemplyed or underemplyed.

    For overseas readers I wanted to post a picture of Kevin Andrews but unfortunately he doesn’t have a reflection and cannot be photograhed.

  7. I worked for an Aust. Federal Govt. Dept. in the era when the Govt. privatised employment services. To put it succinctly, it rapidly became a mess. The situation was not perfect before this step (how could it be as it was under-funded anyway?) but the privatisation move certainly made things much worse for the unemployed.

    If I may make a more technical welfare point too… The attempt to measure welfare need too finely is costly, administratively speaking, and doomed to failure. In any of the sciences, the issue of measurement error is well known. You cannot measure anything finer than the margins of error inherent in your measurement method. When you attempt to measure welfare need too finely the policy becomes complicated and thus the forms that the welfare applicants must answer also become very complicated. The chances that any data collection will be accurate or anywhere near accurate plummet. Much of the data in the welfare database gives a false impression of accuracy with its extensive and deep data which supposedly can be used to measure welfare need finely with lots of rules and tests. Only problem is, much of this data is incorrect for even simple forms can lead to much doubtful data.

    Staff obviously make mistakes too when policy is complicated. There is a particularly interesting nexus (I once studied it) between returned forms with ambiguous or semi-legible answers (not clearly right or wrong) and time-pressured and performance-pressured staff trying meet processing goals. Under such conditions, staff will reject a clearly wrong or incomplete form (client must be contacted again) but where the form is ambiguous the staff will, in a proportion of cases, make a guess at what the client’s answers mean. Examples: (Rent amount looks way too high for a rent per week answer? The client must have put their fortnightly rent so halve it and enter that data. Client’s writing is hard to decipher, is that a 5 or an 8 in the “tens” column? Take a stab, it’s probably an 8 as that leads to a more believable rent rate for that area.) Those are just simple examples. There are many more complicated examples.

    To cut a long story short. Simplified welfare policy would assist both staff and clients. Attempting to shave the welfare budget with complex policy is a game of diminishing returns. Eventually adminstration costs or administrative errors and thus hidden costs elsewhere (if you skimp on up front adminstration costs) will eat up your “savings” on the welfare.

    A straight forward and humane policy like a Job Guarantee will vastly simplify the welfare arena. I would suspect that the costs would be more than offset by savings in welfare administration and also savings in the costs of social ills (crime, disease etc. would decline markedly).

    Footnote: What would be my answer to the rent issue? Simple, remove the rent test and rent component from all unemployment benefits. And then add an amount that takes unemployment up to the single pension rate. The benefit is simpler to administer and higher. Same with pensions, remove the rent test and rent component, (remove concessions for pensioner home owners with all their attendent complications) and then add in a non-tested component (call it accomodation allowance if you will) to all pensions that replaces or better than replaces the other payments and concessions. This is just one simple example. I could list a 100 items that could be simplifed but this screed would get much too long.

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