By Tracey Dowdy
Every day we use our phones, tablets and laptops for everything from researching good schools to checking out Yelp reviews of the new sushi place downtown. What we may not realize is that more and more homeless are using technology to access the Internet to stay in touch, connect to otherwise inaccessible resources, or even make a living.
A survey of the homeless population in Philadelphia showed 47 percent had used the internet in the past 30 days. In a separate study, 46 percent of homeless adults reported daily use of the Internet and 93 percent reported weekly use. Research out of California suggests that as many as 95 percent of homeless youth are accessing the Internet on a regular basis.
Those numbers surprised me but it makes sense. For homeless individuals, technology allows them access to support and services that would otherwise be outside their reach. Given how relatively inexpensive pay-as-you-go phones can be, many homeless individuals use them to stay connected to friends and family, help with job searches, access health care or a meal, or even find a safe place to sleep. Others access the Internet though public libraries and shelters, which also offer a safe place to recharge their batteries.
The non-profit St. Anthony Foundation partnered with Zendesk to produce Link-SF, a mobile-optimized website that offers resources for the homeless of San Francisco. From its home page, the site connects users with local providers of food, shelter, medical and hygiene services, and technology.
Searches are based on the user’s location and each category can be broken down into more specific sub categories. For example, clicking on the medical tab pulls up a list of clinics with the address, phone number, walking distance, a description of services provided, and a list of languages spoken. The benefits of Link-SF go beyond the individual who has accessed and searched the site, as the information is often passed along by word of mouth.
The homeless struggle to find work, not least because they are often difficult to contact. Access to a cell phone allows an individual who may be struggling to get off the street and make a living to be accessible to an employer. Even with no fixed address, individuals can leave their number for prospective employers or work on an as-needed basis.
Some homeless individuals make the most of Internet access and use it to make a living. Jessie Angle makes the park at Martin Luther King Plaza in Pensacola, FL his office and spends his days watching YouTube to earn bitcoins – digital currency. Angle can then convert those coins into a gift card for a restaurant like Papa John’s Pizza to supplement his food stamps. You don’t need a street address to create a bitcoin wallet, which makes it safer than cash when you’re sleeping on the street.
HandUp lets you directly donate to a homeless individual in need of specific help. “100 percent of your donation goes directly toward medical care, shelter and other basics needs. Our members access HandUp through community partners, connecting them with other services and helping them out of poverty.” Individuals set up online profiles, work with a case manager to set up a financial goal, like dental work they couldn’t otherwise afford or help getting into affordable housing. Donors can make a one-time pledge or an ongoing monthly commitment.
There’s no doubt that life on the street is hard, but simple, affordable access to the technology and resources that we take for granted could bring actual, physical life change to someone struggling to get back on their feet.
Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology.