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The Homeless Shooing, Crime Fighting, Robots in San Francisco

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By Benjamin Steele

The new brutalist future is here, and it’s coming in the form of ‘robot sentries’.  I would have expected to start an article about cruelty to homeless people by talking about a big law firm, tech company, or some sort of mustachioed villain petting a robotic cat. But no, the story begins at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

SPCA ‘crime fighting robot’

The SFPCA have been ordered, writes Mike Murphy at Quartz, to stop using a Knightscope autonomous data-gathering robot to shoo away homeless people outside their building. The fact that the robot itself is covered in decals of cute animals makes this even more vomit-inducing.

OK, I need to stop for a second. Look at this thing. It looks like the lovechild of a Dalek from Dr. Who and an iPhone, and it’s marketed like its some kind of tech-utopian apple product.  According to the manufacturer’s marketing materials you can stream video from the robot to your favorite handheld device — you know, for maximum homeless-shooing efficiency.

This is, however, far from utopian. It’s the spiked windowsills all over again, just dressed up with kittens.

Among the many issues with this sleek Bond-themed Dalek (seriously, watch the video below by the company that makes these things) is the fact that it most certainly needs some evaluation before it can continue with any sort of public use. For one thing, it has a tendency to fall into things and run people over. Murphy writes: “These robots have had a string of mishaps in the past. One fell into a pond in Washington, DC, in July. Another ran over a child’s foot in California in 2016.” On top of that, an autonomous data machine streaming information back to private companies brings up privacy concerns. Furthermore, the robot is shooing people in public spaces, by what legal definition does it operate?

Thankfully, San Francisco’s municipal government has taken action to stop the SPCA from using the robot in public spaces. According to the Business Times; “On Dec. 1, the Department of Public Works sent the SPCA an email saying that the robot is operating in the public right-of-way ‘without a proper approval.’ SPCA would have to stop using the robot on sidewalks or request a proper permit, according to the DPW email reviewed by the Business Times.”

The SF SPCA does awesome work for animals and pet owners every day.

On the surface the wish to create a better environment for everyone using the building makes sense. I do believe that it’s a genuine wish of the SPCA and the people who created the robot. The problem is the method they chose. Quartz quoted reported on a comment by a spokesperson from Knightscope:

“Contrary to sensationalized reports, Knightscope was not brought in to clear the area around the SF SPCA of homeless individuals. Knightscope was deployed, however, to serve and protect the SPCA. The SCPA has the right to protect its property, employees and visitors, and Knightscope is dedicated to helping them achieve this goal. The SPCA has reported fewer car break-ins and overall improved safety and quality of the surrounding area.”

This position is particularly transparent, given that Jennifer Scarlett, the president of the S.F. SPCA has indicated that removing the encampments, was indeed a goal of theirs. According to a quote attributed to her by the Business Times: “We weren’t able to use the sidewalks at all when there’s needles and tents and bikes, so from a walking standpoint I find the robot much easier to navigate than an encampment.”

Now I’m not at all blind to the real problems that the SPCA faces, and their need to secure the safety and property of everyone involved. This approach, however, is as callous as it is thoughtless. All this robot can hope to do is move criminals and homeless people onto the next block. It’s not the kind of problem solver we want or need. It doesn’t make the city safer. It might make the SPCA’s neck of the woods safer by its presence, though that is unconfirmed. It’s the “hope it happens to someone else” approach to these problems. Not to mention, the approach incorrectly and harmfully attributes crime to homeless populations.

Additionally, the robot was not operating on their property. It was operating on public property, which is something they are not, in fact, within their rights to do.  Presenting robotic sentries as the lesser of two evils is a disingenuous argument that obfuscates the true source of criminal activity and makes public streets less hospitable to pedestrians.

The whole situation highlights a need for proactive, rather than reactionary, policy-making when it comes to tech. Innovation in the tech sector has always outpaced legislation, and this is the latest proof that some people can’t stop themselves from pushing the limits of decency with unregulated tech.

On the other hand, I don’t place blame squarely with the SPCA, or even with Knightscope. The problems to which these terrible solutions have been presented come from a varied web of causes that include improper support for victims of abuse, insufficient mental health support, and the ridiculous cost of living. The SPCA most certainly needs affordable options for security, and funnily enough, those homeless people could do with somewhere to sleep. These are solvable issues, and we don’t need robots to tackle them.

Seriously though, the SFPCA is a great organization that does great work for animals every day.  If you need help with your pet check them out at

Organizations (including the city) that work to permanently remove homeless encampments in S.F. by transitioning the people in them to other living arrangements are working as hard as they can with the budget they’re given, but dollars to effect, the effort does not seem at all optimal. The surfacing of private security robots underscores that the problem is not being effectively managed. People on the front lines are overwhelmed. There are policy, funding, and execution problems, but a patrolling robot is not making these problems any easier to solve.

In their frustration, I understand why the SPCA would take a measure like this. We should all take it as a sign that overhaul is needed in the ways we tackle homelessness.

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  1. January 10, 2018 at 2:38 pm

    So it hurts people, bullies both the homeless and the rest of the public on public property and costs a mint. And it does NOT benefit animals that I can see. Wow. Way to go.

    • LindaPV
      January 11, 2018 at 10:31 pm

      I don’t understand. You call it bullying the homeless. But what exactly is it called when a homeless person becomes malicious when you don’t have, “a spare dollar”? Ha. Here in Hawaii, they call homeless settlements “illegal camping”. If there’s no law broken, there’s no incentive for the numerous drug addicts to siphon some of their funds to living arrangements. And the chronically homeless who choose to live in tents should be offered a place to do so. Not the area around the SPCA! How many pet adoptions were never realized due to the situation surrounding the building? I say the robot is a good, non personal way to tell people that don’t belong there to move along.

      • Geek__Girl
        January 13, 2018 at 11:19 am

        There is a difference between mistreating the homeless, and enforcing laws against harassment. I strongly oppose the rather nasty folk who feel that the only acceptable approaches to homelessness are ones that are either immoral, or illegal (preferably both at the same time). Harassing people who are doing no real harm is wrong. Dealing with people who commit crimes is not. I rather reluctantly carry pepper spray. As an older woman, I have it for protection. I only used it once, and that time the person, who was not even aware what was going on, turned and only got it on the back of his jacket. That was when I was in a Subway, and a person came in, and approached me (I was sitting at a table that is away from the main part of the shop, and demanded I give him money. Now, if someone asks nicely, I will say something like, “Sorry, no,” or “I don’t have any spare change..” But he did not ask. He demanded. In that case, I will respond with a firm, “No!” He became belligerent, and demanded that I give him money, and acted rather menacing. I reached in my purse, and brought out the pepper spray. He turned and headed into the main part of the shop, and began threatening the staff. I got up and was going to go and help protect them. As I did, he came back towards where I was, and I was going to use the pepper spray and then call the police to come deal with him. He dashed out the door, and as he did, I sprayed, and hit the back of his jacket. He really needed to be dealt with. On another occasion, as I was coming out of BART at 16th Street, another panhandler was at the top of the escalator. Similar situation. He stood in front of me, and said, rather menacfficingly, “Give me a dollar!” I responded, “No!” He came back with, “I said, GIVE ME A DOLLAR!” I responded with, “I said NO!” and brought out my pepper spray, and released the safety, aiming it at his face. He then said, “Go ahead! And I will beat the sh*t out of you when you do.” As I brought out my phone and dialed 911, I responded, “No, you will be thrashing around on the ground, crying like a little girl.” As I stood there, holding him at bay with the pepper spray, he continued to threaten, and said “Go ahead, call the police, I will say you were threatening me with pepper spray.” I calmly spoke with the operator as he raged on and on, giving a detailed description of him, and explain the situation, and passing on what he was threatening. He suddenly wised up, turned and headed across the plaza up Mission. I described his path until he round the corner and was out of sight. At that point, I told the operator, “Never mind, he is gone,” and proceeded on my way.

        No, stuff like harassing the homeless with robots, arresting people for merely trying to survive, ideas like “zero tolerance,” are not right. We should be providing approved and safe areas for them to occupy. We should be providing sufficient shelter that no one HAS to live on the streets. We should be working to build sufficient low cost or free housing (and not giving more and more money to Randy Shaw). Shaw’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic is the largest evictor in the City, even though they are paid to prevent evictions. THC is supposed to provide support, and counseling. It is easier to just ignore problems until they have enough to evict, and replace the problem with a fresh victim.

        Bottom line, it is time to end the practice of using the homeless as the mayor’s personal political football. Lee wanted to get 1,000 homeless off the streets (temporarily) which is not enough. It is like his grand effort during the Super Bowl, when people were put on thin mats on the floor of a warehouse, out of sight, and then dumped back on the street when the masses had departed back where they came from. Bread and circuses for the bigots….

  2. Dina
    January 11, 2018 at 12:48 pm

    I both volunteer at a rescue within the SPCA Compound, as well as work across the street. We lease two parking spaces in the SPCA parking lot, and two of my co workers park there on a daily basis.

    almost every weekday I (and many other fellow volunteers) take dogs out for walks for a lap around the SPCA. for a while last year the homeless encampments were so bad we were temporarily banned from doing so until the situation could be dealt with. Tents, garbage, feces, etc etc etc *completely* blocking the sidewalk, along with needles, dogs not on leash and more. we would have to step out *into the street* to avoid all this. not exactly safe.

    One day I was in a fenced in area adjacent to the parking lot playing with a dog and one of the people in a tent started screaming that someone else had OD’d and to call 911. minutes later the paramedics and fire department arrived. a bit unsettling to be sure, but not my first time witnessing this type of thing.

    another day my co-worker went to her car late afternoon and there was a crazy person screaming and running around with a sword. luckily the cops arrived and were able to apprehend him before anyone was hurt.

    Homelessness and mental health issues are a real huge problem here in the City but I don’t understand how anyone can see this robot as an “attack on the homeless”. I saw that Robot a couple times cruising up and down the sidewalk but the majority of the time it was rolling around the parking lot. people who work at the SPCA and surrounding or who are visiting the hospital with their pets deserve to be safe.