Cell Phones for the Homeless?

This very well written, thoughtful, and detailed article on Mashable about homelessness and connectivity is well worth the read. It makes a number of valuable points about homelessness and smart phone connectivity with which I agree:

  1. Experiences of homelessness are often quite complexed, with housing status and where one is sleeping changing from night to night, defying simple definitions of what it means to be homeless.
  2. Phones can be tools by which people access resources to improve their status.
  3. The public can be uncomfortable with a homeless person having a phone, which is still considered a luxury by many.
  4. Having a phone can help one feel ‘normal’.
  5. One can still have a strong sense of self in spite of currently being unhoused.

This article raises the question for those of us who work in the sector of whether providing smart phones is indeed the intervention to help end homelessness? We sought to answer this question in a study of 212 individuals currently experiencing homelessness.

Here’s an interesting graph to start, that helps frame the discussion of why I am actually not holding much hope for this is an intervention:

Internet Use

1) The first thing that we noted is that there is a drastic divide between users and non-users of the internet. The majority either use it daily or not at all, with far fewer being intermittent users.

2) The second thing we heard is that for those who want access, getting it isn’t that difficult. Whether it’s free wifi downtown, in coffee shops, or at agencies, or computer access within agencies, or the most common, computer access in public libraries, people are able to get online when they want to. The only significant barrier to this was those living in social housing with physical limitations.

3) The third thing we heard is that in terms of accessing services, there is always an in-person alternative. So social agencies aren’t setting up programs that are only available online, you can always go and see a worker for assistance.

4) The fourth thing we heard is that internet access can actually make things worse for some individuals. In particular, youth talked about negative social capital, the fact that their social networks often were a detriment to their well-being, rather than helped them do better. All that internet access provided was more frequent and thorough access to this negative social capital. Youth talked about deleting their social media accounts as part of a process of exiting the street.

5) Our overall finding was that there was no statistically significant causal relationship between accessing the internet more and doing better physically, mentally, or socially. This means that although for some individuals, like the man in the story, their cell phone is their lifeline, giving all people experiencing homelessness cell phones and data plans might not be the best use of resources for ending homelessness.

3 thoughts on “Cell Phones for the Homeless?

  1. I am a young person and I am constantly told I cannot afford to buy a house because young people spend all their money on phones, big tvs and ipods. I do not own an ipad, I do own a basic phone (cost a tenner) that I require for work, I also own a 32″ CRT TV, I paid a fiver for it.

    The people who told me this live in a large 5 bedroom house purchased for 4 times income back in the 1960s. They have a 60″ flat screen TV, generous final salary pensions, smartphones that they do not know how to use and ipods that they do not use.

    The irony of their statements seems to be lost on them.

    I could buy a smartphone, big TV or ipad for less than the cost of a single months rent for the 1bed flat I live in, which is in one of the most deprived areas of the UK.

    To buy their house today it would cost some 11 times income, if working the same job. However to get the job would cost some 4 years time of study and a further two times eventual income in tuition fees and one more year’s wages in living costs over the study period, providing one can gain employment that is, gone are the days of full employment (unemployment below 3% that is, where I am, youth unemployment is about 30%, and that isn’t counting the economically inactive, that is just the registered unemployed).

    Homelessness is a real worry to me. I’ve been homeless before.

    Home ownership is something that the previous generations could aspire to, tis not for mine you see. For we are priced out. You want to tackle homelessness, me thinks you ought to concentrate on the price of housing, both purchase prices and rents.

  2. Giving people experiencing homelessness cell phones and data plans would in my opinion be a great resource in at least managing homelessness. Homeless people should have a number they can be reached at. Since free internet access is easy to find the data plan on the phone would only need to be very basic. Music could be downloaded onto the phone and studies have shown that music improves a person’s mood. America has the lifeline phone service for low income people allowing people to get a free cell phone and discounts off the monthly bill. Maybe one day a program like this will be considered for low income Canadians. Shelters in my opinion should all have 1800 numbers so they are easy for the homeless to contact. Smart phones are good for listing to podcasts and reading E-books. Emergency shelters are not the best use of resources for ending homelessness either but yet they do help. Like the shelters a cell phone may not be the best resource for ending homelessness but it would help a great deal.

  3. Pingback: Technology and Homelessness: Please Don’t Judge – Death Unseen

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