Barcodes for the homeless: insulting or ingenious?

Tara Sallis and Sophie Kilminster debate the implications of giving barcodes to the homeless


A new scheme by Greater Change in Oxford aims to provide homeless people with QR barcodes which pedestrians can scan. This would enable people to read about their backstory, donate to them via mobile bank transfer, and ensure that the donated money is only spent on approved activities. Homeless people participating in the scheme can display the barcode in any way they wish, whether that be by wearing it or holding it as a sign.

For: Tara Sallis

“Do you not think that it is rather like scanning an item in the supermarket?” suggested the BBC reporter presenting a video on this new initiative. I’ll admit that I feel discomfort when seeing this form of giving, which stems from the fact that it comes across as transactional. When we think of someone giving change to the homeless, we imagine someone generous and kind; someone scanning a homeless person’s QR code does not conjure up such a warm image, even though they are essentially doing the same thing.

The problem here is that when people perform small acts of charity such as giving to the homeless, there is typically an element of that person wanting some social credit. Interestingly, much of the outcry about this initiative has been about the optics – as if the giving process was somehow tainted by being made digital.

The debate that we are having here is not really about the homeless: it is about how good we look when we are giving to them. If we used this barcode system, it is likely that at least some pedestrians who would have wanted to give to a homeless person but were short on change, will now be able to. And others, who may have worried about how the donated money would be spent, may now be persuaded to give to someone in need since the money cannot be stolen and is guaranteed to go towards constructive things.

But ultimately, all that really matters is that we are giving an option to people in need. Homeless people can choose for themselves whether or not they want the QR codes, and they are more than capable of simply not signing up for one if they don’t like the idea. Surely if a homeless person chooses to use the QR code as a tool to improve their life, it would be incredibly patronizing of the student population to condemn this choice.

The argument that the system encourages us to just scan the QR code and move on, thus taking away a human dimension to the process, simply does not stand up. It is unclear why unlocking your phone and scanning it takes any less time than putting down a few coins. People who stay and chat to the homeless will continue to do so, people who don’t, won’t.

As for the idea that homeless people will start competing to create the most desperate story about their lives to get the most donations, this fundamentally misunderstands the nature of giving to the homeless. People do not go from one homeless person to another before donating to the individual they perceive to have the worst life. For the most part, people pass a homeless person on the street and arbitrarily choose to give them money simply because they happen to have spotted them. The notion that people will start demanding that the homeless offer up their QR codes before ranking them off against each other is frankly ludicrous.

What really dehumanises homeless people within our society is that they are living in such desperate conditions on the streets. If we genuinely care about making the homeless feel human again, we should commend the creation of new tools which they can choose to use to get themselves out of their predicament. Maybe this scheme will be successful, maybe it won’t be. But the introduction of such an innovation addressing the homelessness issue is a positive development which should undoubtedly be encouraged.

Against: Sophie Kilminster

The thumbnail for the BBC news video explaining Greater Change’s scheme to allow people to make cashless donations to homeless people was enough to put me off the idea. The picture is of Terry, a homeless man in Oxford, looking up towards a faceless person brandishing a smartphone at him to scan the barcode attached to a string around his neck. The immediate initial impression I get is that of Terry wearing a dog-tag and being at the whim of someone with a lot more power than him.

It is inevitable that there will be a power imbalance between the homeless and the rest. This is particularly the case in Oxford, where students in ball-gowns, sub fusc and expensive designer gear flounce past those who can barely afford to eat. That power dynamic is perhaps unavoidable, and as one homeless woman interviewed in the video admits: yes, wearing a barcode is objectifying, but at least it brings in some money.

But here is where my main gripe with the system kicks in: when you scan the QR code attached to your homeless person-of-choice’s neck, you’re able to read their bio. Terry’s bio states that he was once a scaffolder, but that his relationship with his partner ended badly and led to him becoming homeless. It is frankly none of our business why Terry is homeless, and how galling must it be for him to have to make the painful facts of his past public to get a few quid off some student standing over him with their expensive smartphone?

Likewise, I worry that this QR barcode system could result in people who are on the streets for less ‘nice’ reasons, such as being an ex-incarcerated person or being an addict, being seen as less deserving of people’s money. No matter their reasons for being on the streets (which, again, are none of our business), homeless people deserve a chance at a fresh start and should never have to air their dirty laundry to get this.

I hate to think of how this could become some battle of tragic backstories, with certain homeless people alienated by the scheme’s donators because their story isn’t as nice as that of the man sitting a few metres down the same road. Ultimately, our kindness and goodwill should never be exclusively for those who are homeless for supposedly ‘worthy’ reasons; if our goodwill is not universal, then it becomes divisive, not helpful.

An even more pressing concern is that the act of refusing to wear a barcode which details all the bad hands life has dealt may be misconstrued by the public as such homeless people being unwilling to get back on their feet. It’s important to remember that nobody wants to be homeless, and if it were simply a question of willpower then the current homelessness crisis might not exist.

Ultimately, the bio element of the app and the likeness of the barcode to a dog tag are real oversights which make this system fatally flawed. Whilst this scheme has its heart in the right place, we must be careful not to sacrifice morality and humanity when technology takes such a big step forward.