Should Facial Recognition Be Used in Homeless Service Delivery?

More than one organization in homeless services that we are aware of is considering the use of facial recognition software. I can see the pros and cons of it, but very interested in your thoughts. Here is a guest blog from one of the providers considering the use of facial recognition software. Please chime in with comments!

To live day-to-day, a person needs to prove who they are to receive the best service and care as possible. Without ID, a person can’t vote, access many social services or join most banking institutions. Even book loans can be restricted.

On the one hand, just like banks and government organizations, emergency shelters require ID because they’re responsible for the well-being and safety of all shelter users. From building evacuations to relationship management, it’s vital that agencies know who’s in their care.

Yet, on the other hand, the lack of ID causes enormous grief for those who don’t have it. Government issued ID can be expensive and agencies require additional forms of proof. For example, to obtain a SIN card in Canada, you first need an original copy of your birth certificate or certification of citizenship or registration.

Technology experts have been working on solutions to this global identification problem in human services, including facial biometric technology. Facial biometrics is a non-invasive, contactless and globally accepted identification tool that helps identify individuals who may not have access to required identification.

There are three key benefits from this technology:

  1. Collect accurate data to better understand people and to better inform programs and system planning
  2. Provide a trauma-informed process to check-in people who require shelter and/or our client services (e.g. laundry, mail services, case management)
  3. Provide staff with more accurate information, so they can focus on helping clients find housing


Q: How does Facial Recognition work?

A: Facial Recognition does not take a photo of a person. Instead it quickly computes a series of measurements between facial features to determine the unique ‘map’ of each client’s face and applies a unique code to that series of measurements. Clients are still recognized when they grow or shave a beard, or experience temporary facial swelling, because the measurements the system chooses are based on skeletal structure under the skin. This micro-measurement process is also what makes the system anonymous and secure, as there is no link between people’s name, photo and facial measurements.

Q: How can facial biometric technology make emergency shelters better?

A: Facial biometric technology is accurate, immediate and non-invasive. This means individuals who need to access services are checked-in more quickly, staff know who’s in the building, and the process has less potential to be a triggering experience.

Q: Why does a more efficient intake process matter?

A: During the winter, the number of people accessing services increases exponentially because of the frigid temperatures. Facial biometric technology can decrease the queue and the amount of time people wait outside in dangerous conditions.

Q: We’re talking about the most vulnerable people in our society. Why do agencies need to know so much information about them?

A: It comes down to service and security. With more comprehensive and more accurate data, an agency will have a much better understanding of who is accessing services. Shelters don’t always have the resources required to track who is accessing client services like the laundry room, housing support, etc. Having a better idea who clients are gives us a far better opportunity to assess and strengthen agency programing.

From a security point of view, shelters are responsible for protecting all shelter users, staff and other stakeholders who enter the building. Rarely are people turned away, however, if a person exhibits threatening or violent behaviour, shelters are obligated to restrict their entry into the building to protect clients, stakeholders and staff. If staff can’t accurately identify each person with government ID, it’s possible for a client to use a fake name -- or many -- and re-enter the building.

Q: What are the safety benefits of Facial Recognition?

A: In some shelters, people register for services, but they do not sign out when they leave. By linking Facial Recognition to a security camera system, the number of people currently in the building will always be known, which will provide critical safety information during building evacuations.

Q: What are the privacy and ethical implications of this software?

A: Once proven and implemented, all information collected about clients will be treated with the same high degree of security as current personal record systems. There is still an expectation and responsibility to adhere to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIP).

The homeless-serving sector is currently researching best practices about consent and informed consent.

Q: How will this technology help end chronic homelessness?

A: Facial biometric technology will significantly increase the efficiency with which people can access emergency shelter. Yet, front-line staff who are trauma-informed, inherently compassionate and knowledgeable in housing/human services options will continue to lead conversations with clients about how to secure sustainable housing.

Technology is only one part of this solution, but strong policy and front-line staff are crucial contributors.

About Iain De Jong

Leader. Edutainer. Coach. Consultant. Professor. Researcher. Blogger. Do-gooder. Potty mouth. Positive disruptor. Relentless advocate for social justice. Comedian. Dad. Minimalist. Recovering musician. Canadian citizen. International jetsetter. Living life in jeans and a t-shirt. Trying really hard to end homelessness in developed countries around the world, expand harm reduction practices, make housing happen, and reform the justice system. Driven by change, fuelled by passion. Winner of a shit ton of prestigious awards, none of which matter unless change happens in how we think about vulnerability, marginality, and inclusion.

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