Privacy has become a major subject of conversation lately. Facebook has captured your data, with the help of your friends, and is using it to sell you things. Every website and app has updated their privacy settings to make consumers feel safer about sharing their locations, their relationships and their movement. It lends a sense of security to know that our privacy is being handled with care because, we believe, we deserve privacy. We are entitled to it.
But not everyone is, it seems.
Living outside is an exercise in relinquishing privacy. Not only are homeless individuals often forced to carry their belongings with them, offering a quick and visible identifying marker, they are also required to do things — wash, eat, sleep, use the bathroom — in public.
There are more subtle ways that homelessness strips individuals of their privacy. Overnight shelters, with mats on the floor just inches from one another, offer little in the way of personal space. Food banks often require ID. Housing programs and government assistance may mandate that recipients turn over samples of their bodily fluids to ensure that they are not using any substances — including legal ones, such as marijuana — before they can gain access to shelter or a meal.
A lot of sheltered people — people who were outraged over Cambridge Analytica — are perfectly OK with this.
At a recent neighborhood meeting to discuss a proposed tiny house village in north Seattle, residents shouted and booed and yelled when the Low Income Housing Institute’s Sharon Lee stated that the residents would not be drug-tested as a condition of tenancy.
“If I do heroin, can I get a free place to live?” hollered one man. The answer, of course, is yes, in a sense. Because he has health care provided through his employer, he probably could. But that’s not the point.
We don’t drug test college students who receive Pell grants. We don’t drug test homeowners claiming tax credits for their mortgages — or for their mortgage applications, for that matter. We don’t drug test a person when they call the fire department because their house is in flames. Because people deserve privacy. Right?
Unless they live outside. In which case, we enroll them in a national database, the Homeless Management Information System, which can put them at risk of further harm. We ask them to turn over pieces of personal information, such as their Social Security number, gender identity and maybe even immigration status. We compel them to give bits of their physical selves to laboratories for testing.
And this is all fine, it seems. Because privacy, you may have heard, is a human right — but only for some humans.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and policy consultant. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Salon and The Nation. View previous Access Denied columns.
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