I was homeless about 10 years ago.
Not because of drugs or alcohol or substance abuse. Not because of any crime or serious misdeeds nor even a single night ever spent in jail. Not because of any particular mental problem. But, mostly because of an exceptionally bad sense of timing when it comes to changing jobs and places to live. The dot-com bust happened almost the very day that I left a comfortable tech job in Florida and moved to the Bay Area, for example. I eventually fell into a living as a climbing instructor, which made my heart bigger but my bank account smaller — much smaller.
I've never really said much about the last 10 years, going from homelessness to living in a decent place, with a yard, owning my own business. Honestly, these years have been little more to me but a blur of monumental effort.
Anyway, this is just the set up. This story isn't about me. This story is about Matt, Gmail, and Republic Wireless. Well, it's partly about those things. Actually it's about starting over, and how hard it actually is, since a lot of people really have no idea.
Matt showed up on my front porch a few months ago looking for work. We talked for a minute and I gave him some yard work to do, and then he surprised me: he got the whole job knocked out real quick and did it well besides. He impressed me and I paid him better than a fair rate for our area, which was also about all I could afford that day. He was intelligent, polite, and hard-working.
He's come around a few more times, picking up some odd jobs here and there. Matt doesn't have a car, a credit card, a bank account, a paycheck, an address, a home, an internet connection, an email address, or a phone.
There is this stinky, nasty, sneery opinion that a lot of folks seem to have that most of the people that are homeless must want to be that way, because it's not all that hard to not be homeless.
Let me tell you, if you don't have any of those things, it's really quite hard to get any of them. Once you fall far enough behind the rest of society, society's happier to leave you behind than to give you a chance at catching up again.
On Sunday Matt wanted to get a phone. I steered him towards Republic Wireless, because the service is OK in our area, they offer a $100 no-contract phone, and their basic data plan is just $10 a month. It's ideal for someone in Matt's situation.
The order process requires an email address, but Matt didn't have one so he created a Gmail account, which seemed to go OK. We used my office cell to handle the text message confirmation that Gmail requires when setting up an account now, so my phone number became associated with his account. I completed the order process with Republic Wireless using my own credit card, billing, and home address, and everything appeared to go through without any complications. The Republic Wireless order process said it was sending an order confirmation and that was that.
On Monday, Matt tried to check his Gmail account, but couldn't sign in. He thought he'd forgotten his password, so he didn't ask me for help.
On Wednesday, today, I realized the order had never actually gone through my account, so I started trying to figure out what happened. Matt came by and we tried signing in to his Gmail account, only to find that it wasn't a password problem at all: his account had been disabled. You don't actually get to find that out though until after you try to do a password reset.
Google and Republic Wireless are two really good examples of modern companies that do their very best to avoid their customers. In Gmail's case, it's to be somewhat expected, since they're offering a free email service in exchange for showing you advertising, and they aren't really hurting for users, and anyway that's their reputation now. They sure don't try very hard to make their dispute resolution process very easy though.
Matt's Gmail account was supposedly disabled for a terms & conditions violation. Just what that violation may be, I have no idea, because Matt didn't have any way to even access his email account between the time that it was set up and the time that he next tried to sign in to it, and there doesn't seem to be any way to divine just which nefarious thing a homeless kid with no internet connection might've done to piss off the almighty Goog.
I interfaced for a while with the poorly scripted robots that comprise Google's entire customer support system and eventually got back a response to try signing in again:
Dear Google user, Your account was disabled due to a violation of our Terms of Service. Please try signing in to your account and verifying your phone number. If you are unable to verify your phone number, then your Google Account is no longer eligible to be reinstated. You can read more about our policies and the types of violations that would lead us to limit account access or disable accounts at http://www.google.com/intl/en-US/+/policy/content.html. Sincerely, The Google Accounts Team
The account was still disabled.
I did what I should have done in the first place: registered a new domain name, added it to my mail server configuration, and gave Matt a shiny new email account there. This seems like a reasonable step to have to take in 2015 to get reliable email service, yeah?
Meanwhile, Republic Wireless. Republic Wireless really doesn't want to talk to a customer, ever, but I eventually got a conversation started, first with their automated mail service and then with someone who might pass a Turing Test (although I'm not totally sure).
Republic Wireless canceled the order because it looked fraudulent:
Hi Rob, We have declined your order because our customary analysis suggests that this could be a fraudulent transaction. Of course, we customarily take this approach to protect both you and ourselves. If our analysis is wrong, please accept our apologies. Please reorder and let us know when this is complete, so that we may approve the next order. If you have any further questions let us know. Kindest Regards, Republic Wireless
Maybe they tried to contact us, I don't know. The only contact information they had was the email account which was also disabled.
The part of all this that really rankles isn't the fraud detection false-positives, it's the default faceless bureacracy that so many businesses now are adopting as quickly as possible.
Dealing with companies like these is part of what I do for a living. I bill a couple of hours a week just for navigating stupid phone trees, unhelpful front line support, and nonexistent customer service systems. What's someone like Matt to do? He's just a homeless dude who wanted to get a phone without dealing with Verizon or AT&T and their obnoxious monthly costs.
And this is just a first step. Matt has miles, and miles, and miles of equally faceless bureacracy ahead of him.
It's really a shame that modern, resourceful tech companies are so happy to be a part of that blessed aspect of society.
Nobody really wants to have homeless people in their community. Sometimes it's the crime that follows along with them, sometimes it's just the visual blight of it and the vague uneasiness that some people feel when they see them. But this is a problem that many, many people could contribute towards alleviating. A few homeless people might be homeless in any kind of society, but for many others, they're left simply feeling unwanted by society at large; every attempt they make to rejoin society is rebuffed by someone, somewhere, and they often have nobody in their corner to encourage them to keep trying.