With around half a million individuals in the US living in a state of homelessness, it’s a social issue that desperately needs addressing—with the Biden administration at the forefront of this goal. The ambitious effort-dubbed the ‘House America’ initiative, led by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is aiming to help state, local and tribal governments curb homelessness in their areas.
And it’s not the first time the government has stepped up to help America in a crisis. The American Rescue Plan Act, which was passed in March last year—as the US was feeling the first waves of the pandemic arriving from abroad—left states and localities with an unprecedented pile of federal cash. Written in the legislation was to set aside $10 billion to prevent homelessness as American citizens across the country saw their livelihoods in jeopardy from lockdowns and economic strain. To date, this was the largest amount of cash the US federal administration had ever spent in an attempt to eradicate homelessness. By comparison, the annual spending on homelessness by the Departments of Housing and Urban Development was just $3 billion a year. The plan announced earlier this week, 20 September 2021, sets a coordinated agenda to help them use the spending the most effectively.
Even before the pandemic tore its way through the US’ economic heart, homelessness in the country had been on the rise. Estimates show that at the beginning of 2020, 580,466 people were homeless, up 2.2 per cent from the previous year. The cities at the epicentre of this new initiative are also the same cities that have seen both homelessness rates and house prices increase: Austin, Los Angeles and Oakland.
Security of the Housing and Urban Development secretary, Marcia L. Fudge, described the new scheme as “an all-hand-on-deck effort” to address the “homeless crisis” across the nation. The scheme will address the immediate problem by moving 100,000 people—roughly 20 per cent of the country’s unsheltered population—into supportive housing. It was announced that the scheme would then attempt to break the vicious cycle of homelessness by starting the construction of new affordable housing in the cities listed above by the end of 2022. The scheme will also advise authorities to use the money towards “housing first” strategies: prioritising people getting permanent shelter before addressing other needs such as health or economic issues. According to estimates reported by Quartz, if successful the investment—in combination with other pandemic-driven relief packages—could reduce the number of homeless households by an impressive (but much needed) 45 per cent.
When state, local and tribal governments were given a sizeable sum of $350 billion in federal funds allocated by the American Rescue Plan in March 2020, it was so much money local authorities struggled to find meaningful ways to spend it right away—even after bailing out hospitals, transit systems and public services crippled by the pandemic. For homeless assistance, $5 billion was spent on emergency housing vouchers and another $5 billion on HOME grants (a programme designed to create affordable housing).
As the country begins to slowly reopen, the goal now is to target spendings more wisely. And by that, there must be a rhetorical shift of what the target actually is. “On one hand it’s a rhetorical commitment, but on the other hand, changing the rhetoric is the key to changing our approach to the problem. This effort is trying to look at the resources that Congress allocated and say, ‘let’s set some goals, to make sure you’re using it in effective ways, not in ways that are criminalizing homelessness and making the problem worse,” Eric Tars, legal director at the National Homelessness Law Center, said to Quartz.
If House America does succeed in creating thousands of new affordable housing across the very cities that need it most, it would drastically benefit the wellbeing of countless US citizens who have slipped through the net and are currently facing hardship. Moreover, a successful programme on such a scale could influence wider American politics for the better. As noted in the Quartz report, Tars believes it could bring back a social safety net of policies not seen in decades. It’s clear this new initiative is a step in the right direction, a push forward on part of federal actors, to resolve the rising issue of homelessness in the US. However, whether it is enough to meet the immense need is the ten-billion-dollar question.
The year is 2010. I’m twelve years old and venturing down the all too familiar YouTube suggested videos rabbit hole. Among the Smosh, Nyan Cat and generally now crusty memes, I vividly remember discovering a video of a four-legged robot. The robot was freakishly dog-like, repeatedly climbing stairs, being kicked over and self-righting in a strangely life-like, authentic fashion. Even then, with my prepubescent brain, I remember thinking “woah, the future looks kind of… scary.”
Of course, at that age, my vocabulary didn’t stretch as far as ‘dystopian’ but that’s exactly how I would have described it today. Fast forward a decade and the future has arrived. The four-legged, K9-esque contraption has hit the streets of the US. In the capital city of Hawaii, Honolulu, to be exact. The robo-dog is called Spot—that’s pretty much where its lovability ends.
In the midst of the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, while the world was locking down and preparing for the storm of the virus to reach their shores, the federal government of the US passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, freeing up billions of dollars for states and local governments to provide aid for people in need.
California implemented a more generous paid sick leave programme. Massachusetts implemented a pandemic unemployment assistance scheme. The Honolulu Police Department (HPD), on the other hand, had different plans. The department, which polices the city which ranks the highest in the US in per capita homelessness, decided to splash out on a $150,000 giant robot dog to monitor the homeless population.
Now, I have to give the HPD some credit, they’re not the only US police department to spend tax dollars on Boston Dynamic’s unsettling robo-dog. In the same year, NYPD proudly unveiled its own $94,000 dog bot to patrol the streets of New York City. The scheme was short-lived—after receiving a unilateral “fuck this shit” response from New Yorkers, the contract was terminated barely two months later. I guess robot dogs aren’t a man’s best friend after all.
The HPD made other purchases to supposedly help the population and keep the peace during the COVID-19 pandemic: dropping more than $27,000 on a drone; $50,000 on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and a whopping $4.1 million on trucks, according to Honolulu Civil Beat. However, the implementation of Spot used to “take body temperatures, disinfect, and patrol the city’s homeless quarantine encampment” during the pandemic, understandably turned the most heads.
The significant investment of $150,045 on Spot was justified by the department who argued that they wouldn’t have to pay officers additional overtime to administer temperature and wellness checks to the city’s homeless population. The robo-dog supposedly limits direct exposure to coronavirus infections and could monitor the temperature of inhabitants in the encampment to determine whether they were displaying signs of fever. Essentially, Spot is the world’s most expensive thermometer on four legs.
The argument of whether Spot was a worthwhile investment, saving money on overtime pay, is flimsy at best. Luckily, to save us all from a completely dystopian reality, Spot isn’t fully autonomous and seems to require an officer to operate the machine while on the clock. Good to know we won’t be seeing a robot dog revolution any time soon.
Boston Dynamics, the master-mind company behind the robo-dog machine, told VICE in a statement: “Spot was under the control of a human operator and used to remove humans from potentially hazardous environments.” The company also stated that the robot “is not designed or intended to replace a police officer or social worker, but rather to augment the work of public safety officials and police departments.”
The sad matter of fact is that, although the dystopian robot dog patrolling the streets wasn’t intended for ill purpose, the injustice comes when you consider where the money could’ve been spent instead. Honolulu Police received a sizable $40 million package through the CARES Act and, according to Mic, spent a “good chunk of it on toys.” The Household Relief Fund, set up to help people teetering on the edge of homelessness with support of rent and utility payments, got almost half of that money—just $25 million.
Homeless individuals are one of the most vulnerable populations in society, with a significantly higher mortality rate than the general population. This has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Homeless people were twice as likely to be hospitalised; two to three times more likely to require critical care; and up to three times more likely to die than others during COVID-19, according to figures shared by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Couple these statistics with the fact that Honolulu appeared to not take advantage of other federal programmes, such as the Federal Management Agency programme, which would’ve helped keep unhoused people safe during the pandemic and you get the stark unjust picture. Luckily, I don’t think we’ll be seeing these freakish robot dogs popping up in a city near you anytime soon, and if they’re used in good faith, it’s important to consider whether money could be spent better elsewhere beforehand.