Homeless Surveillance Systems: Privacy Breach, Possible Solution, or Both?

Homeless Surveillance System

We are such a sophisticated society in so many ways. You’d think if we could manage to create 3D printers that concoct vegetarian steak, we could solve the crisis of homelessness once and for all. There are many nonprofit organizations covering ground on the issue. Tech gurus are also coming up with inventive ways to fight homelessness. The question is, are these future-striving creations a help or a hindrance? Here we’ll hone-in on one of the most popular tech proposals for the homeless population: homeless surveillance systems.

Video Cameras Designed for Surveying Homeless Spotted Across the Globe

Video surveillance, however unsettling the premise, is part of everyday life in most metropolitan areas across the developed world. These hidden lenses collect us, pixelate us, keep tabs on our travels and spending. The average American consumer simply going about their daily routine should expect to be photographed about 75 times in a 24-hour span. From that perspective, it’s easy to see how many might think photographing public spaces doesn’t alter homelessness in a negative or positive way.

Homeless people are just having their pictures taken like the rest of us, right? Not exactly. The brutal truth is as complex as a photograph. There are many different angles and hidden frames at work. When homeless people are photographed by public security cameras, those images end up in the hands of authorities. Some use the information to help. Others use it to harass and take advantage, under the guise of “cleaning up the streets”.

At first glance, it would appear this technology is like most of our recent innovations: neutral, detrimental in the wrong hands, useful in the right hands. But even saying that would be an understatement. This particular innovation could have extremely dangerous implications if the person whose hands it fell into became greedy.

HMIS: The Homeless Management Information System Collects Big Data from Big Brother

If you doubted the systematic criminalization of homeless people, you’ll change your perspective after reviewing HUD Docket No. FR-4848-N-01. This a lengthy opposition letter to the proposed guidelines of a 2003 HMIS tracking policy. According to documentation, the proposal threatened to “expose the homeless to a degree of tracking normally employed against criminals”.

Today, what we are seeing is that proposed plan coming into fruition. Big Brother is setting its sights on homeless individuals who are monitored and often harassed or removed. Several major cities have turned to homeless tracking as an option, but statistics show it hasn’t made very much progress in living up to its design.

These digital databases are presented to the public as a sort of match maker app, but for housing. In reality, they collect the innermost information from one of America’s most disenfranchised groups. They then use that information against them.

Homeless people who have been entered into an automated tech system via coordinated entry programs have been stripped of everything, including their privacy. The system records personal information, such as sexual history, social security numbers and photographs, then shares the information with 168 corporations. Even after individual assessments, tens of thousands remain homeless. To that end, something sketchy seems to be afloat.

Notable Footage That Did Have an Impact

Gathering data on the homeless population has its pros and cons. Any community that is vulnerable in 2019 is certainly vulnerable to the digital breeching of their own privacy. Supporters of homeless tracking say it aids with outreach. Opposition claims it’s a page out of a dark dystopian fiction. What time is telling, however, is that gritty footage taken of unsheltered individuals in the wee hours of the night gives us a glimpse into the harsh reality of living in a world without walls.

Tracking cameras have captured shootings in encampments, they’ve captured police brutality against homeless, they’ve captured the moment a homeless man was beaten to a pulp and robbed of his last $5. But for all of the happenstance, they’ve yet to capture any solutions or provide any concrete, reliable data.

This type of surveillance is also quite expensive, opening up the possibility of big tech companies to profit from keeping people on the streets. This is something we’ve already seen with the privatization of prisons. As it became more and more profitable to incarcerate civilians, the incarceration rates soared. It’s rather dangerous to then bring forth a scenario where big tech companies stand to profit from the need for homeless tracking systems and the likes. It certainly wouldn’t motivate them to push for ending homelessness, which should always be our goal.

Key Takeaway: There Are Better Ways to Help the Homeless

Tracking systems have done their part in exposing injustices against homeless people. They have even delivered some useful data that has helped some homeless people access resources and housing. However, they have done a lot more to further alienate, further criminalize, and further attempt to dehumanize our fellow human beings. Beyond that, without affordable housing available, a tracking system can do little more than lead the homeless down yet another heart-wrenching dead-end street.

Other image-based technology, like social media, has served the homeless community far better and achieved more positive end results. The rest of us share what we choose of our lives when we go live on digital screens. Shouldn’t homeless people share with us in this right?

Homeless tracking’s most glaring con is it sets the stage for a future where homelessness still exists. Talk to your legislators about the money they’re spending to monitor homeless centers, and how at least some of that might be better spent building affordable houses.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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