The QUO - Homelessness and digital inclusion
As a rough sleeper, a mobile phone is not a luxury.
Homelessness and digital inclusion

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Homelessness and digital inclusion

13 November 2017
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For many of us it’s difficult to imagine the feeling of not knowing where you’re going to sleep tonight, where your next meal will come from, where to find medical help or even how to access support services. But this is often the reality people find themselves in when experiencing homelessness.

The ability to access information and stay connected with services, communities and loved ones is crucially important for homeless people. In 2017, finding information and staying connected means getting online, and smartphones have become a tool for survival.

People sleeping rough sometimes face harsh judgement from passers-by when they’re seen using smartphones. That’s because smartphones are in some ways still seen as luxury items, according to Dr. Justine Humphrys, author of a 2014 report from the University of Sydney and the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network on digital connectivity for homeless people. “That attitude goes with a larger public judgement about people experiencing homelessness, and the policing of poverty in our cities,” says Dr. Humphrys.

The reality is, however, that for people experiencing homelessness in 2017 smartphones and digital access are not luxuries; they are necessities.

"Smartphones and the internet are a basic tool for communication now for every citizen, and even more so for people experiencing homelessness," says Tony Keenan, CEO of Launch Housing, one of Victoria's largest providers of housing and homelessness support services. "If you are rough sleeping, it’s the only means of contact for family, friends and workers who are providing support. It can also provide some safety and security, for example people can call the police or emergency services and can record anyone who is threatening them. Being homeless is very unsafe and a smart phone won’t do a lot to change that, but it could get someone out of a threatening situation."

According to Dr. Humphrys’ research in 2014, 95% of homeless people owned a phone, a higher proportion even than amongst the general population. 80% of homeless people surveyed said that their phone was vital for staying in touch with friends and family, as well as contacting emergency services, staying in touch with support services and getting medical help.

It also allows them to have control over who is able to communicate with them, something which is especially important for people escaping domestic violence. The ability to see who is calling makes it more difficult for abusers to contact and harass their victims, says a domestic violence support worker quoted in the report. "I think mobile phones allow people to see who is potentially calling them by the numbers that come through. If clients don’t know a number or it’s got no caller ID, they won’t pick up the phone."

In addition to keeping in touch and personal safety, smartphones can play a role in maintaining mental health. “Having a phone helps people experiencing homeless to weather personal adversity,”  Dr. Humphrys comments. The ability to contact loved ones is a big part of that, but even small things such as being able to listen to music or play games can make a difference. For people going through tough times, these little moments of fun are precious.

One of the most positive developments in recent years has been the growth of social media as a way for homeless people to connect, share information and support one another. Social media also gives homeless people a voice in public debates where in the past they have often been silenced.

“I’ve noticed an increasing use of social media for advocacy by people experiencing homelessness, for example around the tent city in Martin Place,” says Dr. Humphrys. “It’s a way to raise awareness about what’s going on, to share stories and build local communities around people experiencing homelessness.”

Many homelessness support groups are very active on social media, where they share information and links to resources, give advice on the most useful ways which the community can support individuals dealing with homelessness and provide an important space where people can ask for help without fear of being judged or dismissed. These online groups are more than simple information exchanges – they help to reduce the stigma and bridge the gap between homeless people and the rest of the community by linking those in need with those who can help.

Apps are also useful for sharing information and providing referrals, according to Launch Housing CEO Tony Keenan. One example is the Ask Izzy app, which helps to connect users with over 350,000 services across the country offering housing, food, healthcare, legal advice, addiction treatment and more. The app is the result of a partnership by Infoxchange, Google, realestate.com.au and News Corp Australia, and was co-designed by people with their own lived experiences of homelessness. Since November 2016, Telstra has been offering free unmetered access to the app for its users. Ask Izzy is continuing to improve its service, including making the app more inclusive for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Digital access is quickly becoming necessary not only to find information but to participate in daily life. Many government services, for example, now strongly encourage clients to connect with them online. People living with homelessness or housing insecurity are often engaged with a range of government services, and many have regular reporting requirements for agencies such as Centrelink. Providing services online removes some obstacles, such as the need to travel to agency offices, but it creates other barriers which can be difficult for homeless people to overcome.

“Smartphones are increasingly required for day to day transactions, and institutions by and large don’t consider people who can’t afford access when they make decisions. Phones are more like gas, water and electricity now – they are basic to existence,” says Launch Housing CEO Tony Keenan.

While many homeless people own smartphones, having the device does not guarantee being able to use it. Simply finding a place to charge phones safely can be a daily struggle (for $15 people can donate a recharge card through Ask Izzy) but the main barrier for many people is affordability.

“The biggest problem is cost and access to data. Many people who seek assistance come with debts and fines and increasingly mobile phone debts are an issue for people,” says Tony. “We help out more and more with voice and data assistance and there are a few more free Wi-Fi spots around the city but people really need access to their phones when they are sleeping rough or couch surfing, so you can’t rely on free public Wi-Fi in those situations.”

Reporting requirements and keeping in touch with services often imposes hidden costs on homeless people. Although some services now have toll-free numbers, many don’t, meaning that every time a homeless person needs to contact them they are forced to spend money on a phone call rather than on other essentials. For people who are in regular contact with multiple services, the associated costs can add up quickly. 57% of homeless people report finding it difficult to pay their phone bills. The most vulnerable people, who may have complex overlapping needs including not only homelessness but issues such as mental illness, disabilities or domestic violence, are more likely to struggle to pay their phone bills.

Young people are also particularly at risk of building up phone debts. Unscrupulous mobile resellers show a pattern of signing up young people to phone plans without properly checking whether they were able to pay for it.

“One of the people I interviewed for the report was a young man with a $21,000 debt to multiple mobile resellers,” Dr. Humphrys comments. “He wasn’t even 18 yet, and having a debt like that will make it extremely difficult for him to find a path out of homelessness.”

There has been some improvement in recent years in how mobile providers respond to customers having difficulties meeting their payments, including recognising people experiencing hardship and moving them to more appropriate plans rather than simply cutting off service.  Connectivity programs such as public wifi also help to reduce some of the barriers and the costs which homeless people face in their daily lives. However, according to Dr. Humphrys, much more could be done.

“We need a more comprehensive approach to providing free data and voice access for homeless people. Ultimately it’s not even about making connectivity affordable, it’s about making it free. There’s no level of payment which is affordable for people who have no money.”

Help support Launch Housing end homelessness in Melbourne here.

Elise Thomas

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Power & Policy, Minority Voices
Launch Housing Collingwood, Oxford Street, Collingwood VIC, Australia
13th November 2017

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