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?
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?
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.
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: http://homelesshub.ca/resource/designs-mobility-perceptions-mobile-phones-among-homeless, 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.