Since I started working at the intersection of technology and social issues in 2013, I have learned there is one idea people simply cannot let go of: The notion that homelessness can be fixed with an app.
Call it “Uber for shelter.” It’s always some variation on this theme: an app that will show you, in real time, where shelters are located around the city and how many beds are available. Match homeless people to beds and — voila! — problem solved. Instead of seeing them on the streets and feeling bad, we can pull the phone out and tell people where to go to get help.
This idea is so seductive to those in power that even Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan fell for it, recently telling GovTech magazine that such an app could solve a persistent problem for the City of Seattle’s “navigation team.” The city could build an app “so that every social service provider could look on the phone and say, ‘look, this shelter has five spots. You can go there,’” said Durkan.
A number of things about this are problematic:
It is not an information flow problem. The resources are simply not there.
There are not enough “spots” in “shelters” to give every person experiencing homelessness a place to sleep. Theoretically, it would be helpful to be able to track and display the capacity of all shelters in a city or a county, but this kind of “bird’s eye view” is just impractical for numerous reasons.
Not every “spot” or every “shelter” is available to, or appropriate for, every person.
Frequently, beds are reserved for particular profiles due to funding restrictions, such as those only available to veterans. While this problem is theoretically solvable by counting and coding these beds so that one could simply filter choices through the app, this presumes a number of things about the system that are just not true.
Shelters do not have the capacity to track and code bed availability in real time.
The system is woefully understaffed, with staffers often “a paycheck away from being homeless themselves.” People with technology skills working in IT for homelessness-service providers are often duct-taping solutions together with outdated tools. Tapping the “goodwill” of local companies for a splashy, one-time, public relations-driven donation of equipment and training also is not a solution to the lack of ongoing, sustainable funding that would give shelters the capacity to take on such additional tasks.
Wait, but there’s a solution — the Internet of things!
Can’t we just put sensors or switches on every bed? Wouldn’t that make life easier for shelter workers, too, so they can locate the beds in real time? Can’t we automate this task? While this is theoretically possible, this idea seems to suggest that we redesign the entire system — not to provide better solutions for homelessness, but to make this solution work. Such a proposal suggests that the person who makes it might be more interested in finding a use case for the shiny new tool than in discovering whether that tool is appropriate for the situation.
“You can go there” is not a thing.
It’s not just a matter of transportation, which could be pushed off to yet another fix, like a CSR initiative from ride-sharing companies that transports people to shelters on demand. It’s the idea that people who don’t have a stable roof over their heads have no attachment to place — and no right to want one. Anyone who has ever moved knows that adjusting to a new home, even just blocks from your old one, takes time and mental energy. You have to re-map your whole way of being in space, plan new routes to work, get to know new neighbors, figure out where to buy groceries, and every other task that requires movement. Now imagine the new environment isn’t necessarily safe and that staying there for a night will take you away from your friends and the places you already know where you can find resources. For someone with the additional — and incredibly taxing — mental, emotional, and social load of housing instability, this is a major ask.
People are not interchangeable.
It isn’t simply a matter of whether a bed is theoretically coded correctly for the person who is seeking it. There is also the matter of the person who is unsheltered, whose needs and desires never seem to be considered and who never seems to be consulted when imagining apps like this. There is no part of me that can imagine a product without first thinking about the humans it affects.
This idea solves only one problem — shelter — when there are so many other concerns for people experiencing homelessness.
It is more fair to say that putting people into shelters is the paramount concern of people who don’t want to deal with the reality of homelessness. Many people would rather sleep on the street than in shelters; more than one person has told me they would kill themselves before going back to one. Sleeping in a shelter requires that people give up many other things important to them. I’ll go ahead and list a few:
- Privacy: Shelter funding requires extensive data collection, which is often frightening to people who have been burned by the system, e.g., domestic violence survivors who are afraid of being found by their abusers. Fun fact, law enforcement officials are disproportionately likely to be abusive in relationships.
- Safety: Shelters are notoriously unsafe for people’s bodies, possessions, and psyches.
- Family: Many shelters do not allow adult men and children together, or allow couples to stay together, or allow pets that are family members and often emotional lifelines for people in crisis.
- Community: Encampments and tent cities can offer a sense of community support missing in the hierarchically managed shelter system.
- Dignity: I’ve had plenty of wonderful interactions with the staff of the Union Gospel Mission, but I, too, would rather be homeless than stay with people who believe my identity as a homosexual is abhorrent to God.
- Agency: Perhaps most importantly, on the streets, people have the ability to make their own choices about how to spend their time. Shelters often have rigid rules.
Many people just don’t want to stay in shelters.
Most people do not want to be homeless. Most people end up on the streets for reasons well beyond their control. For others, they make the “choice” because it is the best of all options available to them. They would rather sleep on the streets than in any of the other environments available to them. The streets are better at meeting their needs. That includes not only the abusive and identity-invalidating environments that many people experiencing homelessness escaped from, but the system we are proposing as a solution. Please take that in. Especially if you are someone who works in technology, ask yourself: Is it helpful for you to blame customers who choose alternatives to your product? Or is it helpful to get curious about why your product turned out not to be the magical solution you hoped it would be? One person I worked with on the Mayor’s Innovation Team last year put it this way: “We like to think we don’t have competition in government. But in this case, our competitor is the streets.”
Those are all one-off rebuttals to the persistent notion that we can fix homelessness with an app. But there’s a much larger, much more significant issue at play here: People experiencing homelessness are not objects to be placed in storage — out of sight, out of conscience, where they cannot bother the rest of us. They are people.
Yet the “innovators” who swoop in to “fix” social problems seem to refuse to see them as such. They are more than willing to invest in technology and to spend a great deal of time and energy trying to force technological solutions on the system, but not on interventions at the human level.
These ideas aren’t about solving homelessness for the people experiencing it. They are motivated by what is going to make life more pleasant for the rest of us, allowing us to feel better about ourselves without ever confronting our complicity in their suffering.
When someone like Mayor Durkan proposes this kind of application, they are betraying a near-total ignorance of how the system actually works. For the average person, that’s understandable. In fact, I’m happy for people who have been sheltered from the realities of homelessness, as well as the realities of unemployment, health care debt, poverty, racism, homophobia, transphobia, domestic violence, child abuse, trauma, mental illness, addiction, and the criminal justice system that lead to it. But once you decide that you want to be involved in finding a solution, including by running for public office, it is your responsibility to fix your ignorance before you make decisions that affect other people.
That’s not difficult. Service providers and people with direct experience are more than happy to help the City figure things out. They are upset when the government proposes “solutions” that make things worse, and they will speak up about it. By not being curious enough about the reality of homelessness to ask questions and educate themselves, people in power betray something much less innocent than ignorance. They reveal that, fundamentally, they do not care.