Much More Than a Hooverville

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 24/09/2018 - 5:00pm in

Long pushed to the margins by society and the law, America’s homeless are organizing their own ways to live with dignity.

Book Review: Callous Objects: Designs Against the Homeless by Robert Rosenberger

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 18/09/2018 - 8:45pm in

In Callous Objects: Designs Against the HomelessRobert Rosenberger explores the growth of ‘hostile architecture’ and reflects on what it suggests about society’s attitudes towards the homelesss as well as our relationship with contemporary design. This short, vivid and novel book serves as a timely reminder that our public spaces are not experienced equally, writes Jon Dean

Callous Objects: Designs Against the Homeless. Robert Rosenberger. University of Minnesota Press. 2017.

Find this book: amazon-logo

Last year in England, it was estimated that 4,800 people slept rough. This was 15 per cent higher than in 2016, and more than 60 per cent higher than in 2010 when the Conservative-led Coalition government came to power. Given that one of the understated successes of the Labour government had been the dramatic reduction in homelessness since the millennium, current homelessness statistics, and the increased visibility of roofless populations in towns and cities across the UK, is perhaps one of the clearest markers of the poor state of British society and the health of our public morality. While the current government have taken some initial steps to tackle the problem, when the relatively tiny amount of money assigned by the Homelessness Reduction Act (around £71m) is spread thinly among Local Authorities it will do little to address the root causes of homelessness: namely, benefits sanctions, poorly-paid and precarious work and the mental health crisis.

Society’s disdain for the homeless is also revealed by the growth of what is known as hostile architecture, most viscerally represented by the small metal spikes set into the marble or concrete under cover around buildings, particularly office blocks and new luxury flats. These spikes are put there to deter homeless people (specifically the roofless and unhoused) from lying there, to either beg for money or to sleep. Robert Rosenberger’s new book, Callous Objects, seeks to document the growth of such hostile architecture and how it works, as well as to unpick what it suggests both about our relationship to modern design and to homelessness.

Rosenberger, a philosopher of technology who writes about the mundane everyday objects of urban life, contributes Callous Objects as part of a series of short interventions seeking to turn blogs and conference papers into longer, more considered pieces of work, where authors are encouraged to think out loud and draw ideas together. Very reasonably priced and easy to read, this book compiles examples of simple technologies that have been designed to deter rough sleepers.

Image Credit: ‘Hostile architecture’ in Marseille, France (DC CC BY SA 3.0)

Rosenberger is particularly interested in benches: a low-tech device that has multiple public uses, some of which (sitting, stretching during a run) are considered good, and others of which (sleeping) are considered bad. Rosenberger documents how this simple design – a straight flat piece of wood or metal – has frequently been adapted to make it impossible to lie down or sleep on. Think of bus shelter benches that are thin and tilted, designed for perching rather than sitting, or benches with big solid arm rests in between designated seats. Whereas once a bus shelter would offer an unhoused person plausible deniability – ‘I wasn’t sleeping, I was merely waiting for a bus’ – now it is the designers and city planners who have the deniability – ‘It’s not that we don’t care about the homeless, we just think the bench is better with arms to separate sitting people.’

Readers will find a host of examples from across the world of such design – from Amsterdam, to Tokyo, to the London Underground and cities across the US and Canada. Rosenberger has photographed and documented the precise ways in which each technology plays a mediating role in the experience of urban life, and serves to make the lives of the roofless more difficult.

This analysis is extended from spikes and benches to how public bins work, with bin design reflecting their fraught social status. Rosenberger shows how designers around the world have made it much harder for people to use bins for anything else but disposing of litter. Such restrictive design modifications – where non-solid sides mean they can’t be used by graffiti artists, and locks and tight lids mean those seeking to look through the rubbish cannot access them – demonstrate how designers have thought about what is and isn’t ‘acceptable’ usage.

The book discusses this through Latourian Actor Network Theory, and taps into ontological debates around the multistability of everyday artefacts. This theory is carried lightly through the book, which will appeal both to social researchers in associated fields and the generally morally-concerned. Rosenberger also documents several ways in which people, particularly artists and activists, are fighting back against such public artefacts. The satirical ‘Pay & Sit’ bench by Fabian Brunsig (2008), where metal spikes protruding through a bench retract when a coin is deposited into a slot, is both a deeply chilling insight into a neoliberal future for public services and spaces, but also serves to demonstrate the wide range of critical responses to such defensive and hostile architecture.

This short, vivid and novel book serves as a timely reminder that our public spaces are not experienced equally – hostile architecture seeks to make some of our fellow citizens unwelcome in public spaces. All technologies have multiple uses; social and political forces will always try to limit choice when it comes to these, and we have to pay attention to how this happens in the most mundane ways.

Jon Dean is a lecturer in politics and sociology at Sheffield Hallam University. He received his PhD from the University of Kent, focusing on the role of social class in youth volunteering. He writes about charity, inequality and creative qualitative research methods. Read more reviews by Jon Dean.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

The Homelessness Problem We Don’t Talk About

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 25/08/2018 - 5:00am in

The punishment for a crime doesn’t necessarily end when the person has been released from prison. Formerly incarcerated people face multiple barriers to securing housing (including public housing) and employment, which can lead to homelessness. And just by virtue of being homeless—by having to sleep on a bench or take shelter under a bridge—these people may then be targeted by the police. Thus starts an unrelenting cycle, through which people are tossed back and forth between jail and the street. A new report by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) presents some troubling numbers on this phenomenon. Using a Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, for which the last available year of data comes from 2008, it found that among formerly incarcerated people, the rate of homelessness that year was 10 times that of the general public.

Global Hungers: The Problem of Poverty in Postcolonial Literature

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 26/07/2018 - 10:59pm in

A One-Day International Conference held at the Faculty of English, University of Oxford, on June 25, 2018. This conference showcased interdisciplinary research on poverty in the fields of postcolonial, comparative, and world literature.

Global Hungers: The Problem of Poverty in Postcolonial Literature

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 18/07/2018 - 9:25pm in

A One-Day International Conference held at the Faculty of English, University of Oxford, on June 25, 2018. This conference showcased interdisciplinary research on poverty in the fields of postcolonial, comparative, and world literature.

Book Review: Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police and Punish the Poor by Virginia Eubanks

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 02/07/2018 - 9:04pm in

In Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police and Punish the PoorVirginia Eubanks outlines the life-and-death impacts of automated decision-making on public services in the USA through three case studies relating to welfare provision, homelessness and child protection services. Centralising the stories and experiences of her subjects with sensitivity while also drawing on statistical data, Eubanks offers a valuable and compelling contribution to discussions of inequality and poverty today, writes Louise Russell-Prywata

Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police and Punish the PoorVirginia Eubanks. St Martin’s Press. 2018.

Find this book: amazon-logo

From an algorithm scoring newborn babies on their future risk of being abused to one million denials of welfare benefits in Indiana, Automating Inequality is a deeply unsettling exploration of the impact of automated decision-making on public services in America. It manages to disturb without sensationalising, and avoids (for the most part) preaching ideology. It does so by centring the stories of individuals who have experienced the negative consequences of automated decision-making.

Political scientist and technologist Virginia Eubanks argues compellingly that automated decision-making in social welfare provision is just the latest in a long history of measures that profile, police and punish poor people in the USA. Using three case studies, Eubanks builds an argument that automated decision-making is much further reaching and likely to have worse repercussions than previous non-digital mechanisms, such as nineteenth-century poorhouses.

Having set out this thesis in her opening chapter, the following three chapters each present a case study: welfare decision-making technology in Indiana; an automated system to match LA’s homeless to available housing; and an algorithm to target preventative child protection interventions in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

The story of Indiana’s welfare reform contains all the key elements of an automation bogeyman: an explicit aim to reduce costs and move people off benefits; a whiff of dodginess about the award process for a $1.3 billion contract to privatise a state service; widespread tech failure upon implementation; the inability to effectively hold the corporate contractor to account for this failure; the removal of human connections; and pressure on community services such as food banks to deal with the consequences.

But, as Eubanks aptly shows, its worst feature is the life and death impacts on the poorest and most vulnerable residents of Indiana. Eubanks presents people’s stories through the voices of those who experienced it as well as the staff who worked through the changing system. Throughout this, and across the entire book, Eubanks takes incredible care to respectfully and accurately present people’s experiences, and this gives the text a disarming, almost understated honesty.

Image Credit: (CreativeMerlin CCO)

For instance, Eubanks narrates how six-year-old Sophie Stipes, ‘a lively, sunny, stubborn girl with dark brown hair, wide chocolate eyes’ (40), received a letter saying that her Medicaid benefits – which kept her alive – would be stopped in less than a month, as she had ‘failed to cooperate’. This was how the automated system dealt with a minor paperwork error made by her parents, who Eubanks paints a rounded picture of as being dedicated and resilient. Helped by these traits, and some social capital, they managed to get Sophie’s Medicaid reinstated in time. Eubanks points out that, in all likelihood, others were not as lucky; as she quotes Sophie’s father:

My wife is persistent, intelligent – I mean, it should have been a breeze for her to get the paperwork turned in correctly. I just can’t imagine people with lesser skills [. . .] I know they couldn’t, they didn’t do it (77).

For readers in the UK, it is worth highlighting that public welfare in the USA such as Medicaid applies to a much smaller percentage of people than equivalent benefits in the UK, and is generally only accessible to the most seriously disadvantaged residents. The failure of automated systems to support the poorest and most vulnerable people in the richest country in the world is a theme that Eubanks highlights throughout the book.

Eubanks’s story-led approach allows her to paint detailed pictures of what it is like for people affected by automated decision-making – from the exasperation felt by a process that expects people to apply online when many don’t have internet access, to the dilemma faced by someone of little resources deciding whether to challenge a system when they know they are in the right, but in the knowledge that if that system denies them justice, it will be at huge human cost. And it is not just other people’s stories that Eubanks presents: the book opens with her own family’s highly personal encounter with the sudden withdrawal of health insurance due to an error made in an automated assessment system.

Eubanks visited the locations of all three case studies extensively whilst researching Automating Inequality, and personal observations and anecdotes are scattered throughout the book. The effect is to make the book both readable and authentic. For example, in the chapter on the automatic homeless-to-housing matching tool in LA, she writes about seeing a homeless man sleeping outside the dog parlour; a person and their dog step past them into the dog parlour; she observes that the dog has shoes yet the sleeping man does not. These observations are presented frankly but without explicit ideological reaction or outrage; these are left to the reader to feel, and this is very effective. However, as someone who has spent their career working for social justice, I am predisposed to feeling this outrage; I wonder if readers with a different socio-political lens might have benefited from additional context to drive home the fact that the problem with automated decision-making systems is not primarily an issue affecting a few tragic cases.

Eubanks does take steps to provide this context, and this review should not give the impression that Automating Inequality is light on statistics and secondary research. Eubanks pans out to discuss the huge rise in error rates made by the new automated welfare system in Indiana, and the steep increase in the number of denied applications, which doubled to over one million in three years. A sense of scale is given through inclusion of the number of people affected and the financial costs, and there is rich discussion throughout the book of the historical context of each case. When discussing Allegheny County’s predictive algorithm for child neglect and abuse, she gives an overview of its statistical features and the use of proxy variables to explain how the algorithm is flawed, as it predicts the decisions of the community rather than which children get harmed. Sliding in some basic statistical concepts without the reader needing to panic is definitely to be commended!

Intersections of race and class are woven throughout the book. Eubanks notes the disproportionate impact of Indiana’s welfare reforms on people of colour, whilst – perhaps pragmatically for a broad US readership – still underlining that white working-class people suffered. She mentions the gendered implications of welfare reforms, although this line of discussion could have been extended – for example, while all the senators and decision-makers in the Indiana case are male and almost all of the people whose stories are discussed are female, this wider gender imbalance is not noted.

At its heart, this is a book about poverty and how American society views the poor. The verdict is damning: poor people are seen as lesser people, sometimes barely as people at all. Eubanks illustrates incisively how these views are being embedded in an increasing number and variety of new tech tools, drawing them together to conceptualise a ‘digital poorhouse’ of the twenty-first century. The digital poorhouse, she argues, can act more quickly, at greater scale and with actions that can be hidden by greater complexity than the physical poorhouses that policed, profiled and punished previous generations. Nonetheless, she argues, we are still fighting the same civil rights problem of racialised and class-based inequalities.

It is logical, therefore, that in her final chapter on solutions, Eubanks argues for the need to focus on social movements to build empathy and change people’s views of the poor, and helpfully draws on the successes of the US civil rights movement. Although there is limited discussion of the difference between forging group identity as African American versus ‘poor American’, and she only briefly mentions huge policy solutions such as jobs and basic income, this is understandable given the core purpose of the book: to expose ‘how high-tech tools profile, police, and punish the poor’. Automating Inequality certainly achieves this for an increasingly important equality issue, promoting emotive shifts more often than concrete actions, but making a valuable and compelling contribution to the expanding body of writing in this area.

Louise Russell-Prywata is an Atlantic Fellow for Social & Economic Equity at LSE’s International Inequalities Institute, and Head of Development at anti-corruption NGO Transparency International UK. Her interests include the influence of elites in society, and how data and technology can promote social and economic justice. Find her on Twitter @_LouiseRP.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 


Fresh Hell

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 23/06/2018 - 2:38am in

“I’m from Cleveland. I like TGI Fridays.”

British Man, Who Has Never Left UK, Threatened with Deportation to Uganda

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 21/05/2018 - 8:20pm in

This grim little video was sent to me by Jo, one of the great commenters on this blog. It’s a video from that nefarious Russian propaganda outlet, RT. And it’s about yet another immigration scandal.

It’s an interview with Kyle Herbert, a British fast food worker, who has never left the UK, who was told by the immigration authorities that he was here illegally and threatened with deportation. As a result, he was suspended without pay for two weeks while he sorted the problem out. He wanted to carry on working, but was told by his supervisor to go home, because if he didn’t, the firm would be fined £20,000 for employing him as an illegal alien.

This happened two years ago, and the video dates from the 3rd May, 2018. Herbert decided to come forward with his story now because of similar recent scandals over immigration. The immigration service states that they have corrected the mistake, and apologised.

This shows the dangerous mistakes that are occurring in the immigration service, quite apart from the very deliberate attempts to deny people benefits or citizenship. On Friday, Mike put up the story of Stevie Leishman, a Scots gent, who had returned to Blighty after spending seven weeks backpacking around the world. He then made a claim for Universal Credit, only to be turned down. The reason given was that they were unsure whether he would be an habitual resident of this country, as he made his claim too soon after he returned. The DWP then informed him that he must be treated as someone ‘who is not in the UK’.

Which is truly astonishing. Mike’s post includes comments from both Leishman’s and Mark Andrews’ Supporting Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell Facebook pages expressing their sheer incredulity at the DWP’s decision. And Mike himself comments

It is clearly part of the “hostile environment” policy, even though it isn’t being administrated by the Home Office.

Other examples quoted in the comment thread under Mr Andrews’s post include a homeless person who was excluded for spending four months abroad picking fruit – after 16 years in the British Army, and a woman who left her abusive husband in Dubai and fled to the UK.

It seems if anyone has been out of the UK for two consecutive weeks in two years, they may be defined as a foreigner and denied benefit.

If anything, this is worse than the Windrush scandal.

That travesty concerned people who were born abroad but had the right to stay in the UK.

This targets people who have always been UK citizens.

And Theresa May is at the heart of it. How many times do we have to hear these accounts before she – and her government – are removed?

This is clearly using individual’s travel abroad as an excuse to deny them benefits, just like benefit sanctions are imposed on the flimsiest pretexts and the work capability tests are also imposed to define seriously ill people as ‘fit for work’ so that they too can be thrown off benefits. It’s all part of the Tories’ schemes to deny benefits and real support to the poor, in order to create a cowed workforce, willing to accept starvation wages, zero hours contracts and absolutely no job security. Oh yes, and give massive tax breaks to the rich.

This whole network of depriving the poor, the unemployed and the disabled of needed benefit money has to end now. We desperately need to get May and her vile Tory government out, and a proper, Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn in.

Police Clear Vagrants Off Windsor’s Streets for the Tourists at the Royal Wedding Today

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 19/05/2018 - 7:02pm in

Here’s another injustice, this time nothing to do with Israel. Also this week Mike put up a post about how the Tory council at Windsor had got around the ban on their plans to clear the beggars off the streets of their borough. The plans had been shelved due to massive public outrage. But Tories are Tories, and so they’ve come up with a plan to get round it: they had the cops come round to seize their possessions, meaning their sleeping bags, and put them in storage, so they couldn’t sleep on the streets. This was supposed to be ‘helping’ them.

I can remember a political commentator stating that we now live in an age of ‘inverted totalitarianism’. In the past, the dictator or the authorities in a totalitarian state told people what to do, and the penalty for not complying was brutally clear. Now the authorities also dictate to you, but do it with mealy-mouthed words about helping you.

You can see the same process at work in the sanctions system and work capability tests. Oh no, we’re not leaving people to starve to death, or commit suicide out of despair. We’re incentivising those that can to find work.
Look, so far we’ve helped all these people find jobs. This was followed by statistics, that actually showed you had a better chance of finding work if you didn’t go on their wretched workfare programme.

And the same lying verbiage used to give a veneer of humanity to the Tories’ murderous welfare reforms has been adopted to clear the beggars off the streets. And this is especially hypocritical today, because many of the well-wishers come down to cheer on the royal couple at the wedding today were camping out on the streets. Which is illegal, but no-one was moving them on.

Here’s Chunky Mark making his comments about this, and the Tories wider policy about supporting high house prices for the benefit of rich vulture capitalists in tax exile in Bahamas. He argues that it’s all about pushing down at the people at the bottom of society. They need homelessness and deaths, like the 78 homeless people, who died last year, to keep house prices high in accordance with the law of supply and demand.

Who Do the Board of Deputies Really Represent? Rich Snobs!

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 15/04/2018 - 6:20pm in

Jonathan Arkush’s smear against Corbyn and Jewdas as anti-Semites also set me wondering who Arkush and his fellows really represent in the Jewish community. Arkush and various other members of the Board of Deputies of British Jews are fully paid up, true-blue Tories. So they obviously don’t represent the many left-wing British Jews. Which Arkush more or less admitted when he accused the Labour leader of ignoring mainstream Jewry.

But I don’t think Arkush represents them either. I think he represents an elevated, corporate elite, which looks down on everyone else. I can remember a conversation I had many years ago with two friends of mine, who lived in a very affluent, Jewish area of London. They weren’t impressed with the people there, who were very, very clannish. If you weren’t part of their circle, you were no-one.

There’s nothing uniquely Jewish in all this, despite the claims of anti-Semites. You find rich snobs in all religions and in mainstream, gentile society. I’m very much aware of the perception of Christians as righteous, sanctimonious snobs, who look down on everyone else. As a general statement, it’s utterly false, but it is true of some groups. Like the very middle class Evangelicals, who support Trump and are trying to destroy what little remains of the American welfare network. Because they see the rich, not the poor, as the truly blessed and righteous.

And the religious types surrounding Theresa May and the Tory party undoubtedly hold the same views. In one of their articles, Lobster mentioned how, under the Tories, the DWP is stuffed with right-wing, largely Evangelical Christians, but drew back from calling it a conspiracy.

And then there’s the general snobbery and bigotry in the Tory party itself. Like the comments about the homeless ‘They’re the people you step over coming out of the opera’. Toby Young’s sneering comments about the poor, the disabled and Blacks, Asians and other non-Whites or members of immigrant groups. As well as his loathsome misogyny. Ben Bradley and the other Tories, who want to have their left-wing opponents sterilised. That kind of middle class snobbery is rife in the Tories, regardless of religion.

And it seems to me very strongly that Jonathan Arkush, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and the Jewish Leadership Council represent the same type of howling snobs in their own community. Rich corporate types, who feel threatened by left-wing Jews and Jewish organisations, and who are doing their best to smear them as ‘anti-Semitic’.

Arkush and Goldstein, the head of the Jewish Leadership Council, are snobs and bigots, who should be made to apologise for the use of anti-Semitic smears and tropes against decent people, and particularly left-wing Jewish organisations. No-one should be allowed to get away with bigotry, no matter how ‘respectable’. Not the Chief Rabbi, and certainly not the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.