To use Nextdoor, the neighborhood social network with an estimated 26 million monthly users, you first have to have an address. That means that discussions about homelessness—a common refrain in neighborhoods such as my own in the Bay Area—typically don’t include any of the unhoused people in the neighborhood who are being discussed. If someone can’t use the site, they also won’t be able to see the type of useful posts that often end up there—for example, where new doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are available.
“There’s information that people have firsthand that you might not get anywhere else,” says Yasmine Pomeroy, a teacher and Los Angeles City Council candidate who recently sent Nextdoor a letter asking for a change in its policy. “As a high school teacher, I get emails from my principal who has firsthand information that I could then post to Nextdoor and say, ‘Hey, this is a vaccine location that’s opening up today in our neighborhood.’ That’s important for people to know, not just people who have homes.”
Ruth, an unhoused resident of L.A.’s Studio City neighborhood who asked to be referred to by her first name for privacy reasons, says that she became aware of Nextdoor after hearing about an attack on someone in her neighborhood. She was worried about her own safety and wanted to learn more, but she couldn’t join the platform, where neighbors were discussing it.
“I couldn’t register with my address living here,” she says. “But I lived here for five years, in the same spot here every night. And this is my neighborhood. I worked here. My significant other rented here. We’re part of the neighborhood.” Rumors about the attack on Nextdoor, she later learned, blamed a homeless person for the attack without evidence. “It was basically saying that I was a suspect, instead of somebody who deserves that information so that I could be on the lookout,” she says.
Nextdoor acknowledged that by requiring addresses, “our unhoused neighbors are often unable to join the conversation.” The company would not share specifics but said in a statement that it is “actively working to determine how best to support and engage our unhoused neighbors.”
City governments also increasingly use the platform, posting police reports and emergency updates about natural disasters and asking for feedback on city planning. A neighborhood council in L.A. recently raised the issue with a city council member, arguing that under California law—which guarantees equitable access to public meetings and transparency—the city shouldn’t be using a platform that doesn’t allow full access to everyone.
It also doesn’t make sense, Pomeroy says, to exclude people who are experiencing homelessness from discussions about their needs and future. “Our housed neighbors are discussing the issue without any input from the unhoused community,” she writes in the letter. “Much of the rhetoric being used to describe the unhoused population is hateful, dangerous, and oftentimes threatening to their lives, yet Nextdoor allows this to continue. Oftentimes, these discussions will lead to devastating sweeps, putting our most vulnerable unhoused neighbors in danger while they have absolutely no say in the matter.”
Ruth, who has been evicted from encampments multiple times, losing all of her belongings, says that Nextdoor and similar platforms are places that foster the discussions that ultimately lead to those evictions. When someone later gave her their own login to use on the site, she started seeing neighbors saying things like, “‘Hey, you know that overpass, we should be able to write to our council person or demand that they clear it away,'” she says. “That’s how stuff gets born. It gets out of control from there, because there’s nobody standing up for us and nobody’s saying, like, ‘Hi, I’m a human being. I have been arrested in my life. I’ve never hurt a fly.'”
Some people have used creative means to try to get around the address requirement. In Berkeley, California, five years ago, a group of unhoused activists called First They Came for the Homeless camped in front of a post office and set up a mailbox in their camp; one of the activists, Mike Zint, used the address to set up a Nextdoor account (the website allows members to verify their address either through the billing address of their mobile phone or by receiving a postcard in the mail). He’d heard that people in the neighborhood were conspiring to get the camp removed and were discussing him specifically. “I was accused of drug use, theft, and being a criminal,” he told the East Bay Express at the time. “I was mentioned by name, and most of what was being said was lies.” He signed up and began to defend himself but was soon booted off the platform, he said, because he didn’t have an address.
In Los Angeles, Pomeroy says, some neighbors recently organized on Nextdoor to protest a tiny house camp that had been built in a residential neighborhood. Unhoused neighbors couldn’t respond on the platform, something that she sees as part of a larger flaw in how communities deal with homelessness—many people who have homes never actually talk to those who don’t. “I don’t go on Nextdoor that often,” she says. “But when I do, I often see NIMBYism and people talking about our unhoused neighbors in a really horrific, insidious way, without ever having spoken to someone who does not have a home. So I wanted to combat that and bring awareness to the situation—not just in Nextdoor as a system, but also people who are just not thinking that maybe we shouldn’t be talking about these people without actually talking to them.”
Other platforms have similar problems with how users discuss the unhoused. When some unhoused New Yorkers got rooms in a hotel in the Upper West Side early in the pandemic, some neighbors organized a Facebook group opposing them, with certain members calling them “scum” and “thugs” and raising money for a lawyer to fight to move them somewhere else. Just granting unhoused people accounts on Nextdoor also isn’t a full solution, since many may not have reliable access to the internet or power; others may not want to engage on a platform where they’re continually asked to defend their existence.
But better communication could also help lead to actual solutions for homelessness, rather than cities spending millions to clear encampments without permanently housing residents. “Some of us have [housing] vouchers, but no landlords will accept them,” Ruth says. “My friend had one, and I tried to help him find a landlord. The antidiscrimination law says that they have to accept applications from tenants. But not a single landlord in my neighborhood would take it, and there’s more than 1,000 vacancies. Not a single one takes a voucher.” (This type of housing discrimination has also been seen in other cities.) Many of the landlords may be on Nextdoor complaining about homelessness, she says, “but they are the ones preventing us from moving forward in our housing. And we can’t point that out to them, because we’re silenced.”