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?

%d bloggers like this: