The Guardian has a plan to bring dignity to D.C.’s homeless population. Currently, Erik Assadourian writes for the British daily, many of the District’s homeless earn their keep selling Street Sense, the $2 newspaper that informs residents about the challenges faced by the homeless while allowing them to channel their charity into supporting productive work. But there’s no pride in that, Assadourian argues. After all, “print journalism everywhere is a declining business.”
And so Assadourian has an idea to bring true respect to the homeless: Turn them into human traffic-control cameras.
The proposal is to corral the homeless population into the “Herd,” or Homeless Enforcers of Responsible Driving. “Herd members would be dispatched to dangerous intersections, where red-light running, speeding, or box blocking is frequent and no traffic cameras have yet been installed. From their posts, they could then use city-issued smartphones to take pictures and videos and transmit them to the police or to the Department of Motor Vehicles.”
Assadourian says traffic cameras have been a cost-effective approach to curtailing bad driving, and Herd would be even cheaper. All you’d need to pay for is a few smartphones and uniforms and some training.
“Best of all, Herd members would command deeper respect than the homeless do today,” he writes. “Imagine homeless people in red Herd shirts standing at street corners around the city, a warning to reckless drivers and a vivid reminder to pedestrians that they need not fear being run over.”
Right, as the British say.
Let’s try to quantify the amount of respect currently given to the city’s speeding cameras. Fortunately, it won’t take much calculation: It’s somewhere around zero. People hate them. They hate the white flashes when they pass them just a few miles per hour over the limit, and they hate the tickets they get in the mail. They suspect that the cameras are often wrong, and their suspicion is often right.
Now imagine unleashing an army of homeless residents with smartphones to do the same work. As well-trained as they may be, they won’t be mounted at strategic vantage points; their photos will sometimes be blurry and sometimes be poorly framed. Much as people might fear machine error, they’ll fear human error more.
That’s not to mention the reputation problem the city’s homeless residents already have. If they’re suddenly the ones inflicting traffic tickets on untrusting drivers, whatever resentment exists toward them will only grow, at a time when the city is working to improve living conditions for them through better shelter.
Assadourian sees the Herd concept as the first step in a more economically contributing homeless population. “Who knows?” he writes. “This type of innovation could even trigger all sorts of economic and job opportunities for homeless and chronically unemployed populations. Fruit and vegetable sellers setting up small stands in urban food deserts? Microlibrarians popping up with book carts at metro and bus stops? How about ‘bicycle-sharing relocation specialists’ moving shared bikes to empty kiosks, reducing the need for fossil-fuel-burning vans?”
These are much less terrible ideas, because people actually like fruits and vegetables and books and bikes. So why do we need to start by turning D.C.’s homeless into one of the things Washingtonians hate most?
Street Sense editor-in-chief Mary Otto didn’t immediately respond to a call for comment, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to guess what her response is likely to be. Street Sense may not be everyone’s must-read newspaper. But it gives the city’s homeless residents a chance to tell their story, and to make a semblance of a living in the process. That surely offers a human value that can’t be found in converting them into a cheaper version of machines.
Image from the Street Sense website