“This is not a shelter”

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Rene Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe (1948)” is a well known surrealist painting about the interplay between language and representation. In front of the contrast between the representation of the pipe and the denial of it , the observer is triggered to question himself: “If that is not a pipe, then what it is?”. Clearly what he is seeing is not a pipe , it is just the symbol of a pipe.

In my city – an italian middle-sized town of North Italy – the municipality is playing the same surrealistic game. Everynight hundreds of homeless people find shelter in the public places. Either it is the train station, in the park, in the abandoned buildings in the countryside they share the experience of sleeping rough and exposed to cold, theft, and abuse.

I live next to the balconades where the audience uses to sit during the bike races, next to the city stadium. It is open air but a wide roof offers cover from the rain. The place is covered in dirt: stink of urines, broken bottles, used needles are everywhere. And I see everynight at least five persons sleeping there. As a city dweller thus, I ask to myself, “If that is not a dormitory, then what it is?”

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I believe the city should be designed for its user’s need rather than the countraryI have found an answer to this question: if people sleep on the balconades to find a shelter, then this place must be recognized as dormitory. Then, I have placed a bed, an alarm clock, a pair of slippers, a pillow, blanket and sheets on the balconades. Then I added a signal to make it more explicit: “dormitorio”.

In the following day the bed was left there to be accessible to anybody who wanted to use it. The first and second night it was not used by anybody. The third day, in the morning the municipal cleaning service removed it, as they would do with the sleeping bags or mattress of every homeless person. The city does not give space for homeless persons, who are overchecked by the police, and are criminalized for the simple fact of living in the public space.

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On last week, a homeless man on the balconade told me that the police waked him up asking: “What are you doing here?” “What a nice question! I don’t have any other place to sleep, don’t you see?”. Everybody knows, still nobody cares.  How are we going to challenge this statement?

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