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Tech Won’t Solve Poverty If We Can’t Even Bring Ourselves to Look At It

The residents of this amazing city no longer feel safe. I know people are frustrated about gentrification happening in the city, but the reality is, we live in a free market society. The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it. I shouldn’t have to worry about being accosted. I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day.
I am telling you, there is going to be a revolution.

The above was taken from an open letter written by Justin Keller, founder of Commander.io, to former San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and the city’s embattled former Chief of Police Greg Suhr in 2015.

In case you don’t remember, Keller’s letter went viral after the wealthy young founder described the city’s homeless population as “riff-raff.” It wasn’t the first openly hostile letter written by an entitled male techie aimed at San Francisco’s homeless population, and it won’t be the last.

Sadly, little has changed since Keller attempted to spur Ed Lee into action. The cost of living in San Francisco is 62% higher than the rest of the United States. More than half of the estimated 13,000 people living on San Francisco’s streets have been homeless for a decade or more, and almost half struggle with substance dependence and mental health problems. Vital housing subsidies for low-income families have been allowed to expire, forcing hundreds if not thousands of people out of the city. What little gains have been made in reducing the city’s homeless population are the result of literally bussing the indigent out of San Francisco to other cities.

I was reminded of Keller’s letter after reading this article in The Guardian by Virginia Eubanks, author of Automating Inequality: How High Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor.

Eubanks argues that technological solutions to poverty are inherently flawed because they view poverty as a social inevitability, rather than the result of deliberate, purposeful economic policy decisions — “something to be managed rather than eradicated.”

“The trouble with this practice of hi-tech triage is that it treats social problems as if they are natural disasters — random, temporary, inevitable occurrences — obscuring the political choices that produce them.”

Like other technologists who have argued against technology’s supposed impartiality, Eubanks is absolutely right.

However, Eubanks also asserts that technology is being increasingly applied to complex social problems out of a misguided attempt to tackle homelessness more efficiently. Subjective matters of need are reduced to algorithmic equations. By removing the difficult, emotional, inefficient aspects of administering social services, we can help more people, more effectively — a classic example of Silicon Valley’s productivity gospel, at least in theory.

While greater efficiency is undoubtedly one goal of an increasingly algorithmic approach to social welfare, I’d argue that technology is being used to deal with poverty for another reason — so we literally don’t have to look at it.

Using data and technology to administer social welfare programs might increase efficiency — though the jury’s still out on that — but it also further anonymizes the already invisible poor who live on America’s streets; it’s easier to let a machine decide who gets a bed than it is to look into the eyes of another human being and tell them they have to sleep at a bus stop. It broadens the vast gulf between us and the homeless people struggling to survive in our communities; homeless people are seen as little more than economic detritus, rather than the victims of a cruel and predatory system. It strips the vulnerable of whatever dignity and humanity they have left, reducing them to variables in an algorithmic equation that isn’t even profitable enough for the private sector to consider solving.

In his missive to Ed Lee, Keller didn’t complain about the root causes of poverty that had driven the homeless people living on the streets in his neighborhood to such extremes of despair — he just didn’t want to see it. He didn’t demand that Lee build more affordable housing in the City by the Bay or make social programs more accessible — he just didn’t want his wealthy relatives from Rochester, New York, to see homeless people urinating in gutters or “accosting” them for spare change on their way to brunch. He and his peers “went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it.” Why should they have to endure the sight of pitiful, homeless drug addicts?

Keller is far from alone in his disgust for the homeless, nor is America alone in its mission to eradicate the sight of the poor from its wealthiest cities. Great Britain has gone to great lengths to remove the visual blight of poor people from the streets of London (albeit via more practical means that algorithmic discrimination, a tactic that has also been deployed against homeless people in Toronto), and Theresa May’s Home Office has also used data analytics to spy on and deport homeless EU nationals. Law enforcement officials in Berlin have begun issuing on-the-spot fines of €40 (around $48) to people sleeping rough in the city’s affluent city center and financial district, as well as buying homeless people one-way tickets out of the German capital. Homeless camps in Melbourne were cleared by police in anticipation of the Australian Open in 2017 — a fact that Melbourne officials have weakly denied — and similar action was taken against homeless people in Japan ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

There’s no denying the potential role that technology can play in building a fairer, more just society. We’ve already seen some creative applications of the blockchain being used to help homeless people in Austin, Texas, and other counties and cities across the country are piloting similar schemes to help their own indigent populations. However, we cannot rely solely on technology to solve the problems of our own making, and we cannot hope to work toward a more equitable future if we can’t even bring ourselves to look at the results of our own failures.

Homelessness is the problem we have to solve — not homeless people.