Y’all got me all messed up,” said a woman experiencing information overload.
She and eight other homelessness service providers sat at computer terminals mounted with gray, spherical cameras a little smaller than a baseball. Next to the computer monitors sat single-eyed finger-imaging devices small enough to be held in one’s hand.
These are the gatekeepers, individuals trained by the city to use the biometric and photographic equipment that helps the Department of Human Services (DHS) track the movement, placement and service histories of homeless people seeking shelter in San Francisco.
“It’s really quite simple,” a DHS employee explained to the woman. “Every homeless person seeking shelter through certain resource centers must be photographed and fingerimaged.” The trainer is careful to emphasize the distinction between scanning a finger-image and collecting a finger-print.
Welcome to a changing world, if not exactly a new one for homeless people in San Francisco and around the country. Some say it is a world where the poorest of the poor seeking public assistance are increasingly required to give up more privacy for fewer services.
“We are very much opposed to biometric imaging for various reasons,” said Annabrook Temple, director of the General Assistance Advocacy Project. “We think it will have a chilling effect on people accessing needed services. We think it’s an invasion of privacy.”
Get used to it. Biometrics recently has come to mean the identification of people through biological traits. Iris scanning, face recognition and finger-imaging are examples of the technology. And it’s not just the stuff of science fiction anymore. Biometrics is gaining in popularity and usage.
Once viewed as the exclusive domain of hitech companies, retailers, government, and financial institutions today employ biometric technology. Banks have experimented with finger-imaging employees and using iris recognition at automated teller machines. Prisons and law enforcement agencies have used the technology in lieu of ink-and-paper fingerprinting.
Earlier this year, DHS launched software that incorporates biometrics. Assisted by the Department of Telecommunications and Information Services and the Mayor’s Office on Homelessness, DHS now uses a shelter reservation system known as CHANGES — Coordinated Homeless Assessment of Needs and Guidance through Effective Services.
CHANGES software, produced by Sacramento- based MetSys Inc., allows for photographs, finger-images and information about individuals using shelters to be stored in a computer database accessible to and shared by different homelessness service providers.
In May, three homelessness resource centers began using CHANGES to make reservations for people seeking shelter. Included were South Beach Homeless Resource Center, McMillan Drop-In Center and the United Council of Human Services. More centers are expected be added by July 1.
“This is what I don’t like about computers,” said Joseph Yakavonis, a 57-year-old homeless man. The comment was made while a frustrated resource center employee pressed the man’s index finger to an imager over and over again. For whatever reason the computer was not measuring the man’s print. Finger-imaging is actually considered less reliable than iris scanning.
But Yakavonis wanted a mat for the night.
And though the expression on his face revealed he was experiencing pain from standing, he seemed willing to endure anything for a place to lie down. He’s been homeless for about four years and has stayed in shelters the past two. Asked what he thinks about the new technology, he grimaced.
“I don’t like it,” he said, after the woman registering him finally was able to get a reading on his print. “It gives the government more opportunity to know more of your business.”
Being fingerprinted and photographed is nothing new for individuals enrolled in the County Adult Assistance Program. People receiving city welfare benefits have endured the process for years. What is new — in addition to the biometric equipment — is the requirement for people who don’t receive CAAP funds to be photographed and finger-imaged.
Some envision a dark future where the photographs and fingerprints of every homeless person in San Francisco are stored in a database accessible to various government agencies, including the police. While this might be a bit over the top, there may be reasons for the underclass to be concerned about their privacy rights.
DHS is not acting independently in its quest to gather information about people using shelters. In fact, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has mandated that jurisdictions receiving federal funds for homelessness programs provide an unduplicated count of homeless persons by 2004.
HUD is the federal agency overseeing the national effort to create an unduplicated count homeless people, assess use of services by the population and determine the effectiveness of local homelessness assistance programs. To this end, communities around the country have begun setting up databases of homeless people.
HUD says an unduplicated count of the homeless population is long overdue and necessary if the very poor are to be helped. But one could argue that the federal government simply wants to know what communities are doing with its money. Jurisdictions around the country have been receiving federal grants to fight homelessness for years, and the problem has only grown.
Recognition of the homelessness problem and funding of programs to fight it is relatively a recent development. Substantive legislation to fight homelessness did not come about until 1987 when President Reagan signed the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act into law.
Before the McKinney Act, communities around the country largely were dependent on grassroots organizations, churches and local dogooders to fight a problem that the federal government seemed reluctant to acknowledge.
Indeed, the first federal task force on homelessness was not created until 1983.
Today, jurisdictions around the country covet McKinney funds. And as the homelessness problem only continues to grow, agencies dependent on McKinney funds are willing to do whatever it takes to keep the cash rolling in. For them, databases of homeless people may be a small price to pay for millions in grant money.
According to DHS public information officer Maureen Davidson, DTIS and MOOH began working years ago to develop CHANGES, which is San Francisco’s answer to HUD’s mandate. The July 1 implementation of Proposition N, legislation that cuts city welfare benefits, also was given as justification for CHANGES.
Still the federal government does not require that homeless individuals be photographed and have their fingerprints read. It only states that an unduplicated count of homeless persons accessing services be produced. This has led some to question why finger-imaging, particularly, is being used.
Resource center employees were told that only CAAP clients were required to have their finger-images stored on file. Davidson confirmed that having one’s finger-image retained in the database is optional for non-CAAP clients.
Yet some resource center employees were observed file-saving all finger images obtained.
Regardless, Davidson stressed that actual fingerprints are not collected. Instead a computer records several images of prints, assigning measurements to different quadrants and arriving at a calculation that is supposedly fingerprint- unique. Davidson said CHANGES is an improvement over the lottery system, which resulted in some being denied shelter.
“The upside is you will have guaranteed access to shelter,” she said. “The downside is that people who are concerned they’re being fingerimaged and photographed may think it’s linked to other systems.”
The fear is
that CHANGES will grant the San Francisco Police Department and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service carte blanche in accessing records. Significant numbers of homeless people indicated they feel powerless against police because of poverty, bad experiences with law enforcement or criminal histories.
Davidson said the new system is not linked to any law enforcement database and noted that individuals were not required to give their social security numbers when registering for shelter.
Still advocates for the poor see the technology as a slippery slope leading to the further criminalization of homelessness.
As for those reliant on shelters, the new system appeared to be the least of their problems. While observed at a resource center, most of the people registering for shelter accepted the new system without question. Individuals seemed unaware and unconcerned about any rights they were giving up. “It’s fine if it’s authentic and it works,” said one man after being finger-imaged and photographed.