Monthly Archives: February 2016

Technology and Homelessness: Please Don’t Judge

What does technology use have to do with homelessness and death? Well, that will become clear in another post. But for now, I want to use this post to contextualize homelessness and technology use in general.

As a society we have become more reliant on the internet, since access has become more common (Guadagno et al. 2013:86). Other researchers believe that cell phones are thought to be the most rapidly adopted technology in history (Kim et al., 2013). We also know that more people who are becoming homeless are regular and frequent users of technology (Pollio et al. 2013:174).

Imagine if you didn’t have internet access or a cell phone, how would you function in the world today?

cell phone

Part of the problem is that people who have not lived in poverty, or who have not experienced homelessness, tend to generalize their situations onto people who lack resources. For example, I’ve heard someone with the individualist point of view saying “well, I went through hard times, but I managed to get back on feet without any help from the government, poor people just aren’t trying hard enough.” For the purposes of this post, I want to illustrate how this is problematic and then show how this way of generalizing relates to technology use.

Firstly, the rhetoric that people get to where they are without support is complete bullshit. The fallacy lies in not being able to recognize the support that was there, and how people take support systems for granted. Secondly, people do not recognize their own privilege. If you have been lucky enough to have been born in a society that doesn’t discriminate against you because of your race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability, then you probably don’t realize how far ahead you are than other people.

People who are not favoured by society will come across roadblocks that you may not have experienced and therefore you have no clue as to what they are going through.

Thirdly, people who judge others in poverty will typically have their mental faculties in place. “I was able to suck it up, why can’t you?” Ignorant statements like this completely discount how mental illness operates. Furthermore, even if those living in poverty do not have any mental illness, the day to day struggles are taxing. When you have little, if any, coping skills, “getting ahead” can actually become further behind.

How can they afford it?

old phone booth

Take this judgement and then the generalization it purports to the idea of technology use. “My phone bill is expensive! They are homeless, they shouldn’t have that luxury.”

Knowing how imperative it is to have a communication device today, hopefully it becomes easier to understand the importance of having a cell phone when you are homeless. Not all cell phones used by homeless people are the latest models, and not all people who are homeless have cell phones or laptops. An excellent post written by Emma Wooley discusses in detail the cost of different cell phone plans, which are not as expensive as you might think.

From research we know that some people had the phone before they were homeless, some acquired it just after they became homeless, some used security retirement funds, some worked periodically, some used welfare, some received money from family (Kim et al., 2013).

If you were to lose everything you had, but got to keep one item, my guess is that most people would choose to keep their cell phones or laptop.

What do they need it for?

What do you need your cell phone for? Think about how you would fair in this world without one. Imagine finding a job, using the internet, archiving photos, finding resources without having limited or no access to technology.

Let’s get into the research. Mobile phones allow people who are homeless to learn where resources are, find employment, to stay in contact with friends, family, probation officers, doctors and homeless support programs (Kim et al., 2013). From Guadangno’s research we know that “…college students and homeless young adults appear more similar than different in terms of their social network site use” (2013:88) and that “…homeless young adults use social networking more for the purpose of communication, particularly private messaging and blogging” (2013:88).

Roberson and Nardi explain that “…although homeless are often seen as marginalized, isolated, and out of touch with society, they skillfully use digital technologies to promote survival and social inclusion in important arenas of activity” (2010:445). One participant mentioned that he used his laptop to “cope with homelessness” (2010:446) and in general, technology “allowed the homeless to be included with the larger downtown community, and with the housed” (2010:447).

There have been some stories that have gone viral online recently. You can read about how people who happen to be homeless use their phones. For example, this article from Kat Ascharya about a man and his blackberry and this man’s post on Reddit.

social media

The use of technology for people who are homeless isn’t always positive. Many people living on the streets have to deal with theft of their technology (Kim et al., 2013; Roberson & Nardi 2010). Additionally, if you are someone who does not have a home and you deal with social exclusion on a daily basis, using the internet and social media can make someone feel even more excluded. Research by Abe Oudshoorn says “…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.”

One of the worst things you can do as someone who has never experienced homelessness is to judge others who are. Beliefs that stem from ignorance and lack of experience hurts people who are on the street and can lead to apathy when trying to make fundamental changes in policy and funding. If you are someone who has never been homeless, then try thinking outside of your own experiences, you may just find that there are other perspectives out there worth seeing.


Guadagno, R. E., Muscanell, N. L., & Pollio, D. E. (2013). The homeless use Facebook?! Similarities of social network use between college students and homeless young adults. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(1), 86-89.

Kim, M., Cameron, M., & Fung, A. (2013). Designs on Mobility: Perceptions of Mobile Phones Among the Homeless. Retrieved from:, accessed Feb.12, 2016.

Pollio, D. E., Batey, D. S., Bender, K., Ferguson, K., & Thompson, S. (2013). Technology use among emerging adult homeless in two US cities. Social work, 58(2), 173-175.

Roberson, J., & Nardi, B. (2010, February). Survival needs and social inclusion: technology use among the homeless. In Proceedings of the 2010 ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work (pp. 445-448). ACM.


Stone and Glass: We Are All Transient

Myseum is a non-profit organization that celebrates diversity and helps the community to further understand it’s culture and urban spaces. The collective is launching its first annual festival of exhibits exploring different perspectives on the city’s natural, cultural, and historical diversity.The festival runs March.6th-31st.

On March.9th from 6:30-9:30pm at The Church of the Holy Trinity and Trinity Square, the event launch will be taking place that includes an art installation, live music, drumming, historical church tour, food and activism.

The event is a collaboration between The Church of the Holy Trinity, The Toronto Homeless Memorial Network and community artist Rebecca Houston. The premise for the installation is that most people aren’t aware of how many people die homeless and without support. The names of those who have passed away will be projected onto the front face of the church in order for people to take notice.

This is an excerpt from the flyer:

“We all pass briefly through the world, but we are not all treated the same. In Toronto alone nearly 800 people have died on the streets and in temporary shelters since 1985. Many die without a name, listed only as Jane or John Doe. Come for an evening light and sound installation honouring them and calling for change in their memory”



The following is a list of what she is looking for if you are interested in volunteering:
Volunteers to arrive early, (5pm) help set up sound, tables, chairs, food (5-10 people)
Crowd greeting and handing out programs- “Ambassadors” (10-15 people) (from 5:45-7pm)
Help serving food (5 people) (from 6-8:30pm)
Clean up (10-15 people) (9-10pm)

If you are interested in volunteering, please contact Rebecca Houston:rebeccajanehouston[at]

Here is the official website.
Twitter: Stone and Glass @homelessevent

Toronto Homeless Memorial

Another month…more names.

I try to make it out to the memorial service when I can. The ceremony is not long and it’s a great way to show support and remember those homeless people who have passed away. The service is also a reminder that this shouldn’t be happening in the first place, people should not be dying because of homelessness.


People come together to read poetry (focusing on what is a priority to the homeless community for that month) and hear music that speaks to the systemic problems that contribute to poverty. Michael Shapcott gives us a run down of the political climate and of course there is a reading of the names, tribute speakers and a moment of silence.

Community members also take the opportunity to announce any initiatives, projects or protests during the service.

If you are in the Toronto area, feel free to stop by and remember. The memorial happens every second Tuesday of the month at noon.


Importance of Names

“The dead cannot cry out for justice; it is a duty of the living to do so for them” 

– Lois McMaster Bujold

Every second Tuesday of the month, some community members gather at the Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto in order to remember those homeless people who have passed away. One of the hardest parts of attending the Toronto Homeless Memorial, is hearing the list of names that are read during the ceremony. If that wasn’t difficult enough, many of the deceased could not be identified and therefore are read as “Jane Doe” or “John Doe.”

We pride ourselves on our “first world” status, on how “developed” we are compared to other countries. The truth is, we are far from developed. People…and I will repeat this again…people who have died homeless should not have been in that position in the first place. But even further, we cannot even keep track of our citizen’s names? Who were they? And at the very least, what were their names? Where is the dignity?


Kumar and colleagues suggest that we are born with an identity and we deserve to die with one, as it is a fundamental right of being born a human (2014:80). Michael Stoops informs us that “[w]hen a homeless person dies they do no often get the same sense of dying with dignity as a housed person” (2007:6). What most of us might take for granted here is that for many, burials and funerals are commonplace. Gravestones are often marked with the names of the dead. Unknown soldiers are also another group that do not get named in death, however, they are much more exalted in our society.

In a recent paper I wrote, I unpack some of the answers surrounding Judith Butler’s question of “what makes for a grievable life?” (2003:10). In neoliberal times, those people engaged in economic gains and productivity tend to be considered more valuable than those people who “do nothing.” We think to ourselves that money makers are more valuable than John Doe’s who die on the streets because they never contributed to society in a productive economic way. Thomas Laquer would agree, “[w]e have a history of commemorating the dead through monuments, which include war veterans, public workers and political figures. Some of these sites only include those who have “done something for humanity” (2015:423). However, if you learn about people who are homeless and hear their stories, then you will learn some of them were “productive” members of society (which is actually beside the point, but needed to be mentioned).

A human life is a human life, and because we have labelled and stigmatized homeless people, we just don’t care enough as a society to learn their names. Tipple and Speak suggest, that “[t]he negative and exclusionary language used to describe and discuss homeless people helps to construct homeless people as ‘other’ and institutionalize their stigmatisation keeping them dissociated and disconnected from society” (Tipple & Speak 2004:2). Society in general seems to be ok with this, to see homeless people as parasitic and therefore who cares about when they die or what their names were, right?

Despite this, some of us are working to change that.

baby feet

Laquer has also pointed out that “[n]aming marks the entry not into biological but into human life” (2015:367). In Ontario, when we are born, we are required to submit our children’s names to the province that in turn, provides a birth certificate. This is an important societal ritual, not only because it is an official government act, but on a personal level, we can understand its importance. Psychologists have done research on the importance of names. The field has also labelled a phenomenon called “The Cocktail Party Effect” which is being able to recognize our name being said in a noisy room and a good overview of the literature can be found here. Nisbett and Ross (1980) inform us that we pay more attention to identifiable victims than statistical ones.

It is clear. Names are important to us all. We should not live in a society where we cannot keep track of our dead. If this is something important to you as well, contact your local MP and MPP and support affordable housing and social supports as a priority in order to prevent this tragedy from happening in the first place.


Bujold, L. (2002). Diplomatic immunity. Riverdale, NY New York: Baen Books.

Butler, J., (2003). Violence, Mourning, Politics. Studies in Gender and Sexuality. 4(1): 9-37.

Colman, A. M., Hargreaves, D. J., & Sluckin, W. (1980). Psychological factors affecting preferences for first names. Names, 28(2), 113-129.

Kumar, A., Harish, D., Singh, A., & Kumar, G. A. (2014). Unknown Dead Bodies: Problems and Solutions. Journal of Indian Academy of Forensic Medicine, 36(1), 76-80.

Laqueur, T. (2015). The work of the dead : a cultural history of mortal remains. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Nisbett, R., & Ross, L. (1980). Human inference: Strategies and shortcomings of human judgment. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Stoops, M. (2007). Dying without dignity: homeless deaths in Los Angeles County, 2000-2007. Los Angeles Coalition to End Hunger & Homelessness.

Tipple, G., & Speak, S. (2004). Attitudes to and interventions in Homelessness: Insights from an International Study. In paper delivered to International Conference Adequate and Affordable Housing for All, June (pp. 24-27).

Signatures Needed – Please Sign

Cathy Crowe, street nurse and local homelessness advocate, has started a petition to bring attention to Mayor John Tory to address the homeless deaths in our city.

She is hoping that there will be more funding for shelters and warming centres in the 2016 budget. Let’s all pitch in and do what we can, and hope that council will approve the funding

Sign here!