Readers Respond to a Pledge to End Homelessness by Collecting Data on Unhoused People

“This can only end badly. Every time a government makes a list of a marginalized group, things end badly.”

Last week’s WW cover story examined a novel concept for getting services to unhoused people: making a list of who they are and what they need. A New York-based nonprofit has promised Portland officials that such a strategy can effectively eliminate homelessness (“The List,” June 8). Several elected officials, led by Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, see the strategy called Built for Zero as a long-awaited salvation. Others, including former mayoral staffer Tera Hurst, hear echoes of Nazi Germany. Here’s what our readers had to say:

El Oh Kay Why Ee EE, via Twitter: “Ah yes, a list of names of people most marginalized and stigmatized, kept by the government. What could possibly go wrong?”

CH, via “You won’t believe the list they put homeowners on! They have your address, how much you paid, income and everything!”

enjoymypaella, via “Cool, then the homeless can start paying the Arts Tax like the rest of us suckers.”

Violet Nova, via Twitter: “This can only end badly. Every time a government makes a list of a marginalized group, things end badly.”

Mayor_Of_Sassyland, via Reddit: “We’re all on a fucking list. It’s called the census. “Most of us are on the list of registered voters. We’re all on a list from getting our government IDs, SSNs, or paying taxes. “The city of Portland wanted a list of the owners, and all of the units, of all rental properties to create a registry. Was Tera Hurst out here worried that it might lead to a Mao landlord guillotine massacre?”

Scott Kerman, via Twitter: “What I’d love to see is an app where we can find out in real time which shelter beds are available and for whom. 211 doesn’t always have this kind of real-time information. The technology exists.”

Filth Freak, via Twitter: “‘Hi, I’m Joe Jones and I live outside because we live in a market economy and fuck these rents.’”

rebeccanotbecca, via Reddit: “There will be a lot of Seymour Butz and I.P. Freely names on that list.”

A Home Where Everybody Knows Your Name

At Built for Zero, we have seen how many leaders in Portland are committed to reducing homelessness by helping folks move into permanent housing. They recognize that solving this complex problem begins by understanding each of their unhoused neighbors by name, in real time, so no one is left behind.

We acknowledge that this information isn’t a silver bullet—it is, however, a prerequisite. It makes us accountable to knowing who these individuals are and supporting their needs. It tells us how much housing and other targeted investments will be required to make progress. It tells us whether all the existing efforts are leading to fewer people coming into, and experiencing, homelessness.

We recognize that privacy over someone’s personal information is of utmost importance, which is why the data collected for the homelessness information systems referenced in the article—which includes, but is not limited to, by-name data—is subject to federal, state and local rules and regulations, and only collected with an individual’s informed consent. The ways in which this information can be used and shared are restricted, and are shared as part of the process of obtaining consent.

You cannot solve a problem that you cannot see. Like many other communities in Built for Zero, Portland is embracing an approach that refuses to ignore the scale and dynamics of the problem it faces, and the lives of each of the individuals experiencing homelessness. It is inviting those truths as important first—not final—steps toward solving it, and we are proud to support them in doing just that.

Lauren Barnes-Carrejo

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