With the issue of homelessness featuring so prominently in the news this year, and with multiple proposed measures for clearing homeless encampments circulating, it has become more crucial than ever to have some hard data on the problem. After all, how can you address it if you don't know what "it" is? Enter Townsquared, which the Chronicle reports is a private social network designed for businesses (think Nextdoor but for people who work in a neighborhood instead of live in it) and which small business owners are using to track what they view to be the unaddressed problem of the city's homeless population. And while some see this as a vital tool, others are worried that it could lead to a targeted harassment of the already not-well off.
The idea behind the "street reports" channel on Townsquared, as Mission District business owners have dubbed it, is that by first collecting and then presenting the city with hard data on tent encampments, litter, and dangerous behavior, officials will have no choice but to do something about it.
For Townsquared CEO Rohit Prakash it seems that this is both business and personal.
“We are in the heart of the Mission, and have seen the progression of the encampment issue over the past year,” Prakash told the paper. “We have had multiple Townsquared employees intimidated or assaulted near our office, and in two cases, potential employees have declined offers as a result of the current situation.”
But Sam Dodge, the deputy director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housin, doesn't seem convinced. “We have a homeless outreach team that’s been retooled; they’re out there 24/7," he told the Chron. "We have neighborhood teams out every day. We have a joint operation with Public Works and the police department to engage encampments and try to offer people all of our options and services, as well as to clean debris like needles, blood, vomit, urine and feces."
"This isn’t something new to us,” he concluded.
Effectiveness aside, there all also concerns about how the service might be used.
A private social network in which SF small business owners surveil the homeless - what could go wrong? https://t.co/jeZE6XqP6o— John Carl Baker, PhD (@johncarlbaker) August 4, 2016
And business owners aren't totally unaware of the optics of the thing. "When we raise complaints, we’re told we’re heartless,” small business owner Scott Hauge told the paper. “We’re not heartless, we’re concerned. We want to be heard.”
One Mission merchant who uses the site, Doug MacNeil, relayed the story of his last straw with encampments outside his building on 16th Street, when he stepped on a hypodermic needle and is now "resigned to a year of testing for HIV and hepatitis B," per the Chron.
If what business owners really want, though, is simply for the homeless to move away from their place of work, well, then that's another story, and it may not be solved so simply with an app. After all, the roughly 7,000 to 10,000 people living on the streets of San Francisco have to sleep somewhere — and we don't need Townsquared to tell us that.