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Technology important to homeless, but hard to access, researchers say

Flickr photo by Thomas Quine

Digital technology has become so woven into our daily lives here in the West that it’s easy to to take it for granted. I have a mobile phone, a computer and high speed internet and so do most of the people I know. Therefore, everyone must have the same.

But of course many people either don’t own or don’t have ready access to any of these, even here in Vancouver. Many homeless people, for example, don’t have a cell phone. Yet, if they want to apply for a job, find an apartment or get help in an emergency, a phone is almost obligatory. Access to a computer is also important -- to search for jobs, write application letters or just to connect with friends and family on Facebook.

As the authors of an academic paper called “Publics in Practice: Ubiquitous Computing at a Shelter for Homeless Mothers” put it recently at the CHI conference:

“Someone who is homeless may not have extensive access to digital technologies but is nonetheless deeply affected by the pervasiveness of such technologies in everyday life. In everything from maintaining social connections to friends and family, to online registration and verification for social services, to finding and applying for employment and housing, the presence and necessity of interacting with technology has real consequences - and opportunity - for the urban homeless.”

Digital technologies also help homeless people cope with stigma and feel they are still part of society, according to the paper’s authors, Christopher Le Dantec and colleagues from Georgia Tech University and IBM.

A second group of researchers, led by Jill Palzkill Woelfer of the University of Washington in Seattle, pointed out that society has placed barriers in front of homeless people wanting to use technology. For example, even recharging a cell phone can be difficult if you don’t have a place to live. As one homeless young woman told Palzkill Woelfer, "“I’m homeless! People are very stingy with their electric.… Somebody catches you charging your phone on an outlet on the outside of a building, they will yell at you until you leave.”

Using a computer at a library or community centre can also be a problem. As one homeless person told Woelfer: “I don’t really like going places to use computers. it's just uncomfortable to have nine cameras staring at you like ’What are you doing with this computer?’”

Another homeless person interviewed by Palkzill Woelfer noted:

“Being homeless is a challenging experience. Without a job and access to food, shelter, and other basic necessities, living on the streets is emotionally and physically draining. Having a cell phone would at least allow me to be able to call other homeless persons that I have networked with to work on attaining these difficult to get necessities. Knowing that I could call a shelter to get a bed, or 911 for an emergency would make me at least feel safer and closer to services that I need while living on the streets. Others can check on me as well to make sure that I am safe throughout the day.”

"Knowing that I could call a shelter to get a bed, or 911 for an emergency would make me at least feel safer and closer to services that I need while living on the streets."

Telephones are as important for homeless people as for the rest of us -- for safety, shelter, employment and social needs. Yet utility companies are decommissioning and ripping out payphones, both because their use is dwindling and to deter drug dealers from using them. So the homeless have to rely even more on cell phones, which are difficult for them to acquire and, once acquired, difficult to recharge and at risk of being stolen or damaged.

But there are ways to help homeless people get access to the technology they need, the researchers say. For example, the homeless need access to phones that are:

  • inexpensive
  • durable (to survive drops, rain, cold weather)
  • able to be powered and recharged in different ways
  • reliable
  • traceable if lost or stolen
  • equipped with independent and separate communication channels, secure from possible surveillance

Palzkill Woelfer suggests large tricycles that could act as mobile power and internet connectivity sources, that could move around neighbourhoods, allowing homeless people to recharge their phones and connect to the internet without fear of surveillance or judgement.

“Phone and infrastructure designers need to work with the homeless,” she says. 

For more information:

Publics in Practice: Ubiquitous Computing at a Shelter for Homeless Mothers:

Improving the Safety of Homeless Young People with Mobile Phones: Values, Form and Function:

Homeless Young People and Living with Personal Digital Artifacts:

Homelessness 2.0: How technology helps the homeless:

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