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.

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3 Responses to Cell Phones for the Homeless?

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

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