Smartphones are the Smarter Way to Fight Homelessness


Mike Bartholomei, a homeless veteran, talks about his life in the homeless encampment at John Prince Park west of Lake Worth Beach. He charges his phone across the street at Palm Beach State College, which he attended decades ago. (Credit Image: © Lannis Waters/The Palm Beach Post via ZUMA Wire)

Part 1: Just the Facts

New Data Proves Smartphones Are a Necessity, Not a Luxury, for People Experiencing Homelessness

If you’re like me, I cannot live without my smartphone. I use it to keep in touch with friends and family, to connect to the world on social media. I take selfies, although I might not be as skilled at that as the teenagers out there are. The point is, there isn’t a time when my smartphone isn’t streaming something, sending something, or capturing a moment I’d otherwise never get back.

I use mobile maps all the time. Without that app, I would be lost. I mean LOST! As in driving endlessly from cul de sac to dead end street and arriving late to every scheduled commitment, lost. I know because that was me in the pre-smartphone era.

I use my phone to check the weather and to make doctor’s appointments. I use it to shop for groceries. My phone is used for Zoom video chats with my team for business and leisure purposes. I even schedule my travel by purchasing plane tickets right from my phone. My smartphone has become my lifeline. In fact, it’s the last thing I see at night and the first thing I check in the morning.

I am not alone in this. A survey in 2017 reported that nearly half (46%) of Americans say they check their smartphones as soon as they wake up, while they’re still in bed, according to ReportLinker’s survey results. Since Steve Jobs first introduced us to the iPhone in 2007, brands have been leveraging the smartphones in our pockets. Here are some mind-blowing stats that show how dependent we all are on these tiny devices:

  • 96% of Americans own a cellphone
  • 90% of consumers say they use multiple devices to complete everyday tasks
  • 40% say they use their mobile device to conduct research prior to making a purchase.
  • 70% of Americans cite social media as their main source for making connections, sharing content, reading news, and gathering information
  • Because of COVID-19 the growth in telehealth from April 2019 to April 2020 almost doubled its 4,347% growth from March 2019 to March 2020.

The good news is that as a nation, we’re already rethinking many outdated ideas. Perhaps it’s time to have that tech conversation. The one where we admit that smartphones, laptops, and Wi-Fi are an absolute necessity. This is particularly true for low-income families who are homeless or vulnerable to becoming homeless soon.

While this insight is long overdue, there wasn’t any solid data to support this argument…Until now.

Research Provided by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health Concludes That: “Older Homeless Adults Could Benefit from Portable Internet and Phone Access.”

“I needed a way to be seen” proclaims one homeless woman who has managed to access aid via her cell phone.

Another woman by the name of Jacki Adger peeks out of the tent she currently resides in and shows a KPIX reporter her phone. “It’s the only way I can have communication with my family and it’s a way for people to contact me,” she explains.

In that same program, Coalition on Homelessness Representative Kelly Cutler states, “Cell phones are an important tool to getting people housed”.

Invisible People founder Mark Horvath has long awaited statistical evidence supporting his claim that cell phones are a necessary proponent in the future struggle to house America’s millions of people currently enduring homelessness. While this study zeroes in on the numerous American citizens who are tragically aging into homelessness, Mark firmly believes that the results are applicable across the board.

The current statistics reveal the following:

  • Of the group of people surveyed, 72.3% owned mobile phones
  • 55% of participants had regular access to internet services
  • 94.2% still lacked the security of maintaining monthly or yearly plans

How the phones were used:

  • 30.7% of homeless senior phone owners made use of their phones to seek employment, housing, or both
  • 64.6% utilized them as a way of communicating with healthcare providers
  • 82.3% of participants in the study cited keeping in touch with family members as their main reason for investing in cell phones

Most importantly, holders of cell phones were proven to be more likely to acquire housing when compared to participants who lacked this basic need.

Research Provided by the USC School of Social Work Heralds Cell Phones as an Essential Lifeline for Teenagers Experiencing Homelessness

In a separate study, released by the USC School of Social Work, homeless teens described their cell phones as being “as important as food”. In this study, 62% of teenagers enduring the horrors of homelessness reported owning a cell phone. 81% of participants reported using online services via cell phone or another electronic device. Their reasons for doing so include:

  • Staying in touch with family and friends
  • Seeking employment opportunities
  • Contacting current employers

In truth, this data is just the tip of the iceberg in the stormy sea of homelessness.

Homeless advocates agree there are many benefits to cell phone possession for the struggling homeless population. Access to smartphone technology, in fact, opens up an entire network of lifelines including:

  • Putting homeless people in control of their own narrative. Smartphones allow people experiencing homelessness to share snippets of their real life with the general population who are otherwise exposed to much more biased information through the media.
  • Increasing Visibility of Homelessness. The rise of free social networking platforms means that homelessness that would usually be swept under the rug can now be shared, contacts can be made, and new eyes can be exposed to the truth.
  • Access to online education. Homelessness knows no age and school-aged homeless children deserve access to the same online education tools as their housed peers. The same rings true for adults wishing to further their education by taking online college courses.
  • Being up to date on tech trends. Falling behind on modern technology trends can lead to unnecessary loss of employment for people enduring homelessness if they don’t have access to the same technology as everyone else.
  • Access to vital information. A smartphone can be used for tasks as simple as learning when a bus is coming or where a soup kitchen is opening and other important things like knowing what’s going on in the world. Did you know many members of the US homeless population were completely unaware of COVID-19 prior to the international shutdown? Imagine how their lack of knowledge might have contributed to the virus’ spread in the beginning. That could have been prevented if they were able to get online and see the news.
  • Safety. People enduring homelessness are significantly more likely to become victims of violent crime. Having a cell phone means being able to contact authorities in the event of a possible attack. They can also stay in touch with family and friends who can keep tabs on where they are and who they’re with.

Pay as You Go Should Not be the Strategy for People Whose Cell Phones are a Lifeline to Resources and a Possible Way Out of Homelessness

When you think about it, we use smart phones for virtually every aspect of our lives – from filling out forms to renewing expired licenses, from ordering food to applying for employment. It is how we connect, how we learn, how we grow. It is the way that total strangers reach out and touch one another.

Why do we continue to view this technology as a luxury when it has clearly become a basic need? Many homeless people who currently have cellular phones are paying as they go. Imagine what a price that is for your community.

Virtual Case Management: Cyber Outreach Is Desperately Needed for Serving the Homeless Population

for literally a decade, I have been trying to convince the homeless sector to start using mobile tech to help people. Leveraging homeless people’s phones will save lives and money.”

Mark Horvath via Twitter

As previously stated, Mark Horvath is a pioneer in cyber outreach. Back in 2011, he created a website using cartoons to teach homeless people social media that was featured on CNN . That project eventually evolved into a peer support group on Facebook where over 1,300 homeless people and formerly homeless people find help over the internet.

But that’s just a starting point in Mark’s opinion. His vision for the future of the social services sector is one where everybody is seamlessly connected. Here is the way he describes that:

“The sector has been better at sending out multidisciplinary outreach teams, but it would be impossible to hire enough staff to reach out to every tent camp. Instead, homeless people could log in to a mobile website or SMS to get the help they need. Two-way communication is possible between case managers and homeless people via smartphones. Plus, homelessness by its nature is transient. Homeless people get moved around a lot. A homeless person can set up an account, fill out forms, get healthcare and housing advice, updates on their support, and they can update their location when they move.”

Experts now agree with these statements. Incorporating smartphone technology is, indeed, the smarter approach to preventing and reducing homelessness. Making use of newer technologies would make it easier for social workers to connect with those in need. This translates to:

  • Faster access to resources
  • Faster housing
  • More accurate point in time counts
  • Health updates
  • News updates
  • Safer environments for everyone

Still an outdated system leaves many social workers without an actionable digital plan.

When asked about the use of social media in homeless case management, Juan de la Cruz, the Grand Central Food Program Director at the Coalition for the Homeless in New York said, “we’re a little behind the times when it comes to that.”

With the whole nation in a stage of regrouping, there’s no better time to update the antiquated social services system to be a true reflection of modern times. We Are Visible is an excellent blueprint for the future of virtual case management. It directs users who might be experiencing homelessness through the process of becoming visible online. Now that the data has been revealed, the next step should be creating initiatives that get homeless people connected to uninterrupted Wi-Fi and cellular usage.

A Virtual Address Today Could Mean a Physical Address in the Future

For decades, the media has perpetuated a false narrative suggesting homeless people are somehow at fault for their desolate situation. This narrative is not supported by factual evidence that continues to prove that the leading cause of homelessness is lack of affordable housing.

As we delve deep into an era of mass unemployment, it’s high time we stop telling our fellow human beings how to be poor.

If you’re the type to holler at a homeless person that they should go get a job, why would you be offended if they pulled out a cell phone? Filling out an online application is pretty much the only way they would be able to comply with your request. For this reason and many more, having a virtual address in the present could equate to having a physical address in the very near future.

In part 2 of this series, we’ll discuss how the healthcare industry, the nonprofit sector, and even you can end homelessness using cellphones. We’ll look at the impact of modern technology on for-profit industries and use that information to introduce real possible solutions for advocates seeking non-punitive approaches to the homeless crisis. In the end, these goals are safer, better, and much less expensive.

With COVID-19 spreading and homelessness growing, we must start leveraging mobile technology. Talk to your representatives this voting season and see where they stand on embracing new technology and perhaps reviving our cities, suburbs, and country sides one cellular data plan at a time.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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