IN PICS: Madrid’s hostile anti-homeless architecture that you see everyday but don’t even notice

Anti-homeless architecture is often disguised as useful features for pedestrians, but it secretly doubles up as defence against rough sleepers. Leah Pattem of Madrid No Frills investigates.

IN PICS: Madrid's hostile anti-homeless architecture that you see everyday but don't even notice
Photo: AFP

Big money goes into making the most beautiful parts of Madrid hostile towards the homeless, and examples of these disturbing installations can be found everywhere you look.

There are estimated to be over 2,500 homeless people living in Madrid. Just less than a thousand of them are routine rough sleepers, and the rest are the ‘hidden homeless’, who between sofa-surfing spend the odd night in one of Madrid’s few homeless shelters. If the shelters are full, they may roam the streets until morning, bedding down as a last resort.

READ ALSO My Spanish Story: 'I was homeless for two years but it felt like a lifetime'

State-run homeless shelters have beds for around 650 people per night across Madrid, although just last week Samur Social announced that it’d be providing an additional 539 beds per night during the winter months, totalling well over a thousand beds per night. Surely that’s enough to completely stop people sleeping in the streets, but sadly, it’s far more complicated than that.

The reported 919 people who routinely sleep in the streets have been doing so for years. At least half are foreigners – mostly Eastern European and African migrants – and almost half of all homeless people in Madrid also have serious, untreated mental health issues.

For many, sleeping on the streets is often preferred to shelters for numerous reasons: a struggle to adhere to the shelters’ strict rules, having to confront personal or mental health issues, and the belief that sleeping rough is actually safer than staying in a shelter.

As the nights get longer and colder, however, simply getting off the ground becomes a priority, and that’s when the hostility of Madrid truly emerges…


Armrests cleverly disguised as adding comfort to the bench-user are in fact obstacles to lying down.

A bench with armrests in Lavapiés. Photo by Leah Pattem.

Outside the Casino by metro Sevilla. Photo by Leah Pattem.

The new benches along the recently pedestrianised Calle Carretas and the new Gran Vía have sloping angles. Their anti-rainwater feature also conveniently doubles up as sharp angles if slept on.

Concrete bench on Gran Vía. Photo by Leah Pattem.


Seats inside a bus stop, which were once a popular shelter for rough sleepers, are now impossible to lie down on.

A bus shelter on Gran Vía

Note the obstacle two thirds of the way along this bench:

A bus shelter near Atocha. Photo by Leah Pattem.


At Sol, you can find numerous examples of window frames decorated with defensive balls or sloped surfaces.

Corte Inglés on Sol. Photo by Leah Pattem.

Puerta del Sol. Photo by Leah Pattem.


These examples aren’t even subtle.

Anti-homeless spikes in Quintana. Photo by Leah Pattem.


Anti-homeless spikes in Lavapiés. Photo by Leah Pattem.


Calle Lavapiés.Photo by Leah Pattem.

A young sub-Saharan man used to sleep in the sheltered entrance below. He was there for months, and even used the bars on the right-hand window as hooks for his jackets.

Flower boxes placed strategically. Photo by Leah Pattem.

One day last year, I walked past and saw his belongings tied up inside a blanket he used to sleep on. Street cleaners were hosing down the entrance, and concrete flower boxes were installed later that week. This man is still homeless – he just sleeps elsewhere now.


Bike racks stop homeless people sleeping in specific areas.

Outside the Reina Sofía. Photo by Leah Pattem.


The branch of Bankia on Calle Duque de Alba once controversially erected a number of bollards in a corner routinely used by homeless people and has now walled up the corner entirely.

Bankia’s earlier hostile bollards. Photo:

Bankia today. Photo by Leah Pattem.

Imagine returning from a day of begging, wandering or even working to find spikes jutting out of the corner where you slept last night. You may feel the city’s message is loud and clear:

“They should move on. They’re scaring tourists. They’re bad for business.”… said former mayoral candidate Esperanza Aguirre.

Under Madrid’s current mayor, Manuela Carmena, millions of euros are being put into making Madrid’s urban landscape more friendly to pedestrians, yet secret defensive features continue to be rolled out – a symptom of a municipality that is torn between improving Madrid’s look and dealing with its hardest issues.

Anti-homeless architecture is a disturbing symptom of a city that, for a long time, has chosen to patch the leak rather than get to the root of the cause, but as winter draws in and Samur Social opens its doors to the most vulnerable, Madrid appears to be softening its subtly spiky exterior. In the town hall’s recent budget, almost €1.5 million was allocated to helping the homeless – far more than in previous years – and it’s partly thanks to you. How?


Carmena introduced Decide Madrid, an online system that gives the citizens of Madrid a voice. Here, you can propose ideas about how the town hall should allocate their budget, then vote for these proposals. In addition to pedestrianising Gran Vía and restricting traffic to the centre, Madrid chose to help the homeless.

Talking about Madrid’s darker issues is the first step; it raises awareness of the issues our city faces and, because of this, it’s starting to look like we, as a city-wide community, really can make a difference to those who desperately need it. 

Leah Pattem is the founder of Madrid No Frills, a blog that celebrates those overlooked corners of Madrid untouched by the gentrification and modernization that has transformed the city in recent decades.

To discover stories that reveal the grittier, real side of Spain's capital, follow her adventures on Facebook and Instagram

READ MORE: 'Madrid is a humble city of overlooked treasures and untold stories'


Cañada Real: Madrid’s shantytown where residents are living without electricity

On October 2nd, a power outage left around 1,000 houses in a Madrid neighbourhood without electricity, writes Leah Pattem of Madrid No Frills.

Cañada Real: Madrid's shantytown where residents are living without electricity
Temporary, self-built shelters in the Cañada. Photo: Madrid No Frills

Almost 60 days later, the lines have still not been repaired – a situation that seems hard to believe, except for the fact that this neighbourhood is Sector 6 of the Cañada Real in Madrid.

The Cañada Real © @vallecasva

The Cañada Real is an unofficial, 16km-long linear settlement whose origins date back more than half a century. Residents have been arriving to this ancient cattle trail for generations, building makeshift homes and raising families. This winding settlement, which bends southbound around the outskirts of the city (parallel to the M-50 motorway) is a place almost every madrileño knows exists, but few know the reality.

Also known as ‘the Unpaved Cañada’, it remains Madrid’s forgotten neighbourhood and is a blind spot in the council’s responsibilities to its almost 3,000 residents. Their life expectancy is years lower than their paved neighbours in the city, where, two weeks ago, the residents marched for their rights. Signs read: “Electricity is not a luxury, it’s a right”, “I’m sick of surviving, I just want to live”, and “Who told you that there was marihuana in my house?”

Protest at Cibeles on Nov 17 © #404 Comunicación Popular

The last sign is the discriminative narrative that haunts Sector 6 residents, because their neighbourhood is where the biggest drug dealing area in Western Europe is located. Over 12,000 doses are sold a day here, yet only 180 residents are registered drugs users, most of whom receive no help and sleep in tents on the side of the unpaved road.

The narrative run by many newspapers – national and international – is that a growing number of cannabis farms caused a surge in the electricity supply to Sector 6, causing the outage. Yet the electricity supply to the city of Madrid runs without a glitch when thousands of Christmas lights around the city are switch on every night. The stigma associated with the Cañada is unrelenting thanks to media bias, but it’s wrong.

Of the 3,000 people who live in Sector 6 of the Cañada Real, 1,211 of them a children. For almost two months, they have been doing their homework in candlelight, and those who are quarantined can’t access computers or internet.

Parents can’t cook for their families let alone store fresh food, and their only way of keeping warm is by burning rubbish outside. Clothes are washed by hand over a laundry grill – something the modern world long left behind – and people bath in cold water whenever they can bear it.

A view from the Cañada towards Rivas. Photo: Madrid No Frills

Aside from the ongoing and worsening physical traumas Sector 6 residents are experiencing, their mental health is deteriorating, for the children especially. Two weeks ago, the Oficina del Alto Comisionado de las Naciones Unidas asked some Sector 6 children to draw or write how they felt about the loss of electricity to their neighbourhood.

Drawing of a star-lit sky and the sad family of Taisgir, a five-year-old boy living in Sector 6 of the Cañada. Because there is no light in the
Cañada at night, the stars in the sky are more visible.




“Electricity is a right, not a privilege.“

I need electricity to study, to listen, to heat. We are so cold.

Nizar is five years old.


“We want light”

“Hello, I’m called Malak El Harrak El Assouad, I’m 7 years old and I live in the Cañada Real Galiana at 65F. Please let us have light. It’s so cold, breakfast is sad and cold.“


Sector 6 of the Cañada Real is a shanty town and therefore an unofficial neighbourhood in Madrid, yet three years ago, the local government promised the relocation of its long-term residents – a promise that appears to have no deadline.

In all of the Cañada’s history, this is its most brutal moment. The Covid-19 pandemic combined with the economic plummet for those surviving below the poverty line was enough to deal with, but now there is also no electricity for the foreseeable future, nor the fulfilment of the promise to be moved into social housing.

Fatima, 33, grew up in the Cañada Real. Her husband and father built the family home by hand, which her three young children have begun to question more than ever before, asking, “Why can’t we just move?”

The answer that Fatima gives her children when they ask why they can’t just move is simply, “I’m sorry. We can’t”, withholding the explanation that she knows they’ll soon enough learn: discrimination.

Fatima created the Instagram account saying, “All I ask is that you help us raise awareness of the power cut to the Cañada.” Also sign this petition on demanding the return of electricity to Cañada Sector 6 residents.

Please follow Fatima, share this story and sign the petition until the electricity lines are rightfully repaired because in a country that calls itself a modern democracy, electricity is not a privilege, it’s a right.

This article is by Leah Pattem, the founder of Madrid No Frills, an independent Madrid-based platform for under-reported stories from underrepresented communities.

To discover stories that reveal the grittier, real side of Spain's capital, follow her on Facebook and Instagram and support  the Patreon page