The Connected Homeless

homeless2“It’s amazing how nice their Smartphones are. Some would actually go without food rather than lose their Smartphone.”

This quote is from a manager of a homelessness hostel.  Someone who has observed up close that, for the Connected Generation , staying in touch with their networks isn’t a luxury- it’s a necessity.

This isn’t something particularly new. Many reports have established that homeless people are making use of online networks to find shelter, food , and to keep in touch with relatives. And there are examples of the homeless starting online support groups as a very practical means of staying in touch with each other.

This week I helped out on a project to develop a digital hub and social network for the homeless. Mobile and social technology give us unprecedented opportunities to reach out to the most marginalised in society.

The research has identified that under 25 year old homeless are “highly proficient” in the use of social networks to maintain contact with relatives and friends. Additionally smartphone ownership amongst the single homeless is becoming pervasive “regardless of circumstance”.

But it also identifies that existing service provision often isn’t equipped to engage online.

 “Why can’t I be on Facebook? I have as much right to that as anyone else. Just because I am homeless does not mean that I don’t care about this stuff, you know? My family is on Facebook. My friends are on Facebook. People who care about me are on Facebook.”

Some of us will find the concept of homeless people spending time on social networks and possessing smartphones as puzzling.  Have they got their priorities right?

It’s because we can’t truly imagine the trauma of becoming homeless and the things we would hold onto when we have lost pretty much everything else.  For many people – the phone is no longer a phone. It’s a small computer containing address details of friends and family, photographs of loved ones , and diary notes describing important memories. It’s a very personal item.

Additionally many of us have a false perception of the cost of smartphones.  We often still think of it as expensive technology.  But you could be paying as little as £10 per month for a decent phone and data plan. That’s less than the price of a Costa Coffee each week. If you were homeless , which would you choose?

Many public service organisations don’t realise that they are missing out on huge opportunities to engage with groups that would have previously been classified “hard to reach”.  That’s not just the homeless , but ex-offenders, young people not in education or employment , people with multiple health needs. The list could go on.

But whilst it’s revealed that many of the homeless have access to the latest digital resources , the organisations and professionals they have to deal with sometimes do not. There is still a lack of access to Social Media.  As one person I spoke to commented, “How can I tailor services to the homeless on Facebook when Facebook is still seen as a time waster by my manager?”

Then there are repeated stories of internet access to “sensitive” sites being blocked. One IT Manager was quoted as saying the company firewall is “doing it’s job well ” by preventing access to a site on HIV prevention.

But even more common is the story of front line practitioners without the tools to do the job. Using basic phones that can’t text properly never mind access the web.

John Popham has written about this in his blog – correctly asserting that organisations who don’t equip staff are “sending people out to do their jobs with both hands tied behind their back.”

There is a huge irony here – the “hard to engage” are no longer the customers and service users.  It’s us. The service providers.

In 2012 – a Smartphone ceased to be a luxury. It’s not a gadget – it’s a completely new interface for staff and service users to engage , collaborate and design better services.

If the homeless get that , why don’t we?


13 thoughts on “The Connected Homeless

  1. There had been an attempt, I think it was last year, with several homeless people, all living on the street, in New York, all having been given a smartphone each as well as a twitter account. I don’t know what happened to them…
    Thanks for this post, brilliant.

    1. Thanks Pascal -I remember that story too but couldn’t find out what happened with the project! If anyone does know I would love to hear about it. Thanks for reading and responding.

  2. I never really thought about homelessness and mobile internet access, I just didn’t put the two together. Definitely a major area to be explored with regards to communication and engagement with homeless people. Nice blog Paul.

  3. Thom – you are not the only one – I think many people – me included – have separated them out in our minds. If you are homeless – you can’t afford a phone. When the reality often is – my phone is my contact with the world – now I’m losing my home. Thanks for reading and sharing.

  4. Having recently become a volunteer with an organization that helps homeless youth, this topic is something the CEO and I have been discussing over the past few months. Glad to know there is someone out there with the same idea. Would really be interested in learning more about it.

  5. Thanks for the post, as a first year social work student I found it really informative on how some of the things that we most take for granted in society can provide a lifeline to others. Would be interested to know how this could be developed through Local Authorities, charities and voluntary organisations to provide better access to care and services. Also allows for another method of communication for people that find person to person contact difficult.

    1. Scott – I think you hit nail on the head – we need to join up and collaborate to drive innovation (if providing smartphones to frontline colleagues is innovation) into mainstream delivery. Thanks for commenting

  6. I have to think that some of the providers should experience the other side of the coin before they should be managing the support services. So often I see policies and procedures that only make sense in some board room where people are ticking their boxes to meet their targets for this month.
    Nice to read some of the comments on these threads and to find others fighting those attitudes.

  7. Peter – you make a great point. If every provider experienced the service from the point of view of the user those services would change. And a lot faster than just asking the views of the user. Surveys etc are no substitute for experiencing it. My opinion anyway!

  8. Coming from a background in Debt advice provision many of my homeless clients received food vouchers to help in their time of need. Having a mobile phone is having hope and keeping in touch with the world someone has temporarily left behind for whatever reason. Hopefully food vouchers offer short term relief but a mobile phone offers hope. Without a mobile a homeless person cannot apply for jobs, be contacted by the Benefits agency let alone family and friends. It is a real dilemma for a homeless person what address to use for their Benefit claim, at least having a mobile phone number offers some contact with the real world.
    Mobile phones have so many contract terms and SIM contracts its more affordable for anyone, even someone living on very little.

  9. I work in community involvement, its great to read here that assumptions are being broken down regarding tech and IT. Some NHS funded services are even providing IT where it’s needed to enable people to use telecare and teleheath, including laptops and mobile phones. A researcher near me in Devon has been evaluating the use of text messages in preventing self harming in young people and another provider uses mobile phone technology to enable people with aspergers and autism to navigate their daily lives and reduce anxiety in novel social situations which they would normally find difficult. The uses are simple to implement and can often transform a person’s life, and enable people to achieve measurable positive outcomes.
    I’ve lost count of the times I have felt frustrated by members of the public who insist that “poor people” or “old people” can’t or don’t use technology. As an example GP surgeries are now using “virtual groups” to engage patients in sharing views about their service provision and engaging hundreds, instead of tens of people. I wonder whether people have heard of where you can record online your experiences of health services. As a good example of the client group we are concerned with here, do a search on the site for some of the stories from people who misuse substances for first hand accounts of service experience. Providers and Commissioners can view these stories and if they have a subscription can post responses. Its free for service users to access, but providers also need to engage by signposting users towards sites like these to enable feedback across a whole range of services – its not just about the service YOU provide, but whether your client was able to access the dentist, and if not, why not?
    Also if you live in England you will shortly be getting a new organisation called Healthwatch (see to enable the voice of patients, users of social care and the public to be heard at all levels of commissioning, provision and scrutiny.
    You would think online engagement and reaching more folk would be regarded as a good thing but sadly many people still mistrust social media as a way of engaging and don’t think it’s as valid as a letter, phone call or face to face meeting for some reason!

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