Mobile Technology: Helping to Stop Homelessness

Manhattan_Early_Morning_Alamo_mobile_technology_David_Shankbone For many of us, our cell phone is our lifeline to the outside world. These days we can use mobile technology to pay bills, make a reservation, reorder medications or check for callbacks from a prospective employer or a future landlord. We can monitor our checking account, keep up with news and local happenings and stay in moment-to-moment contact with loved ones at home.

While it’s hard at times to think of life without our little transportable backup, the truth is mobile technology has revolutionized the way we live our lives, both at home and while on the go.

Mobile Technology and Homeless Populations

And it also plays an indispensable role in the daily lives of those who don’t have a place to call their own. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there are more than 600,000 people without a home in which to sleep on any given night. That includes not only people who live on the street or in shelters for long periods of time due to unemployment, illness or financial problems, but those who are temporarily without a place to live. For the homeless, the tangible access to a phone can mean the chance to reserve a bed in a shelter or find a place to get a warm meal. It ensures a way to call for help in distress or medical need. And it means that someone who doesn’t have an address to put down on an application can receive that all-important call for work that may give them the funds to eventually find a place of their own.

But there are huge challenges for the homeless when it comes to mobile technology. According to Allan A Baez, the special projects coordinator of Disruptive Innovations for Community Technology Alliance (CTA), the first obstacle is usually price. CTA, which is based in San Jose, California, manages county databases that track government funding for homeless and low-income populations (a mandate overseen by the federal government and used by some non-governmental organizations as well). Baez works with research projects that explore ways of providing mobile technology options for that sector.

One of the take-aways from a recent CTA meeting, says Baez, is that although many homeless individuals do have mobile phones, “the major carriers are just too expensive for our homeless population.” Major carriers like Metro PCS and T Mobile, which own a large portion of the mobile phone market in Santa Clara County where CTA is based, are able to provide service to homeless individuals, but many can’t afford the cost. Smaller carriers like Tracfone and StraightTalk either have difficulties connecting with the community, or provide emergency connection but don’t provide Internet and texting capabilities.

But just as compelling, says Baez, are the statistics when it comes to the homeless who do use mobile technology:

  • 62 percent of homeless individuals surveyed own a mobile phone
  • 51.8 percent do not receive grants or free service; they pay for their phone service with their own income
  • 40.4 percent are job seekers. Their average income is just over $600 per month.
  • 50 percent of those with phones in Santa Clara County rely upon a major carrier for their cell phone service, even though the cost is considered prohibitive for individuals who may earn enough to cover their food, but not enough to pay for a place to live.

Mobile Technology: Transforming Lives

After a six-month study speaking to homeless individuals in the field, social service case managers and NGOs that provide services to the community, CTA came to the conclusion that what was needed was a mobile phone service specifically geared to the homeless and low-income sector. The input it has received from nonprofits in the Silicon Valley and beyond is helping to further a revolution in mobile technology: The concept that a cell phone isn’t just a benefit for the privileged, but a tool that can transform lives.

Fay Arjomandi, president of Vodafone Americas Foundation, which works to facilitate research and dialogue in the telecom market, points out that mobile technology has a wide range of applications that assist individuals in disadvantaged situations. Research has shown that in some cases, the phones become tools for creating jobs by giving individuals the ability to participate in research projects that require photos and data from real-time events in the city. The photo capabilities of a mobile phone provide a way to connect with a potential employer and new income. In an indirect way, it can also help to boost the confidence and self esteem that is so necessary in a competitive job market.

New Educational Resources

And the cell phone provides an innovative way to connect with educational resources around the city where individuals “can learn and master a skill set via a mobile phone,” says Arjomandi. She adds that the hidden benefit is in the incentive it gives to the distance education student. “They can see the impact on their lives everyday.”

Mobile Technology and Homeless Population Needs: An ‘Emerging Market’

Elaine Carpenter, who serves as the vice president of Business Development for the mobile tech research firm ZeroDivide, says research shows that mobile technology now has the capability to cross social boundaries in surprising ways.  The Text a Shelter application, which is designed to help distressed teens find safe shelter in the city, can be used to assist both homeless youth and those in need of agency support.

“(It) really helps connect teens who are homeless or aging out of the foster care system with shelter and crucial resources,” says Carpenter. “A teen can text a shelter and a current zip code to a certain number and will receive a message with the location and phone number of the nearest shelter or any organization.

“It really points up the fact that there are innovative ways that we know that teens as challenged as they are financially, a lot of them do have phones that have texting capabilities. (This) is just an example of (one of the) ways that you can use innovative applications that use texting to reach homeless, and in this case,  homeless youth.” Vodafone Americas‘ financial assistance helped bring ZeroDivide’s research on this topic to light.

Baez says that homeless and low-income “is an emerging market” and a vital resource that could one day help end homelessness. And Santa Clara County’s high ratio of homeless and low-income residents is helping to underscore that point. The upcoming hackathon that CTA is participating in at Santa Clara University on Feb. 28 is just one more indication that mobile technology, with all of its emerging uses, truly does have the ability to transform the way we live and view the world.

The Alamo in Manhattan: David Shankbone

Hackathon: Multichill

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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