Research Matters Blog
Technology, with all its rapid growth and innovation, has long been considered an indicator of status. Perhaps this is why some people think of cell phones as luxury items, despite the fact that the vast majority of Canadians have them. (83% of households had at least one active cell phone in 2013, according to the last Statistics Canada survey.)
As you probably know from carrying around your own iPhone, Blackberry or Android device, cell phones have become a necessity for many. With texting, emailing and mobile-exclusive phone use rising, cell phones are often the only devices with which people can adequately manage their communications. We use our phones to stay in touch with friends and family, find and apply to jobs, feel safe and more.
This is also true for people experiencing homelessness. They tend to face more barriers—stigma and financial difficulties, just to name a few—to technology, but many manage to overcome them.
Most people experiencing homelessness have cell phones
Research shows that many homeless people have cell phones. In Karin M. Eyrich-Garg’s study of homeless people in Philadelphia, 44% of the adult participants already had their own cell phones. (Amongst those participants, 80% owned, 18% borrowed long-term, and 2% rented.)
In another study, 70.7% of homeless patients visiting emergency departments had cell phones, compared to 85.9% of people who were stably housed.
Similarly, in Melody Kim, Melissa Cameron and Alex Fung’s study in San Diego, 8 out of 11 participants had cell phones and the other 2 were seeking replacements.
Evidently, people with cell phones are a significant portion of the overall homeless population and tend to be more the norm than the exception.
They can be more affordable than you think
As noted in our Homelessness 101 section, most people experiencing homeless do so for less than a month. During such short periods of homelessness, it is entirely possible for people to keep their phones in service.
Yet with some of us buying brand new smartphones and paying more than $100 in talk and data services, one might wonder how a cell phone bill gets paid when money is tight. The answer is that monthly costs depend on the kind of cell phone, the carrier and the kind of service.
A report by Wall Communications tracked four levels of monthly talk, data and text packages. They found that the average cell phone bill is between $34 and $80 a month. In Eyrich-Garg’s study, about half the participants had a monthly plan, with various costs and strategies for paying them.
In Canada, we have some companies that provide cheaper monthly plans, many of which have a mix of talk minutes and text messages. Here’s a few of them, with some of their low- to mid-range plan price ranges: Wind ($25-$35), Koodo ($35-$40), MobilCity ($25-$35), PC Mobile ($29-$39), Virgin Mobile Canada ($35-$40) and Public ($19-$25).
Pay-as-you go cell phones are a much more affordable option that allows users to pay in advance and only for what they use. In the San Diego study, this was the most popular kind of cell phone service that homeless people used.
When it comes to phones themselves, people experiencing homelessness don’t always have phones from when they were stably housed. Some use models from friends or family, while others find affordable devices at pawn shops, secondhand stores and even some dollar stores. Using prepaid minute cards, having a cell phone can cost less than $20 a month.
Some shelters and community programs, like Lifeline in California, even give phones away for free. In Vancouver, the P.H.S. Community Services Society collected used cell phones without SIM cards for seniors living in poverty, so they could still dial 911 in an emergency.
Why do homeless people need cell phones?
As I mentioned above, people experiencing homelessness need cell phones for many of the same reasons that people who are stably housed do. In an article for Mobledia, Kat Aschayara wrote about how important one homeless man’s Blackberry is to him:
“His phone, then, functions as an important conduit. On the surface, it’s his most important, practical tool. He can call places for work with it. He can call up shelters and other social services to see what’s available. He calls public transportation to find out which bus lines are running and check out schedules. E-mail and text is especially important. He can reach out to friends to see if he can crash with them for a night or two, especially if the weather is rough.”
One participant in Kim, Cameron and Feng’s study said: “The amount of help they can be is substantial. [Cellphones are] a way to communicate with others to learn where resources are, when opportunities present themselves.”
Safety is also a factor. Another participant in the same study pointed out that without a landline and with fewer and fewer payphones available, he simply had to get his own phone.
Finally, simply being connected to other people is important not only for sharing resources and employment opportunities, but also for health and well being. As Euryich-Garg’s study found, social connectedness was one of the primary reasons that homeless individuals used computers. She wrote: “Mobile phones offer a connection to others without the physical constraints of landlines and may make communication and, therefore, access to one’s social support network more feasible for homeless individuals. This, in turn, could lead toward better health outcomes.”
Stephen Hwang et al. came to similar conclusions in their study of multidimensional social support and the health of homeless individuals, writing: “…perceived access to specific types of social support derived from social networks of friends, family, and/or neighbors can have a protective influence on multiple health outcomes among homeless individuals.”
Even social connections with strangers have value. As Margaret Rock wrote in an article on 2machines:
“Homeless bloggers, for instance, are a godsend for those who find themselves in similar circumstances. Those on the brink are increasingly reaching out on Twitter, using homelessness-related hashtags or topics. One name that comes up often is Mark Horvath, who goes by the Twitter handle, @hardlynormal. His dedication to providing a forum for homeless to share resources, advice and tips gives others a much-needed path to navigate their new, scary world.”
For many people experiencing homelessness, cell phones aren’t a luxury. They’re a necessity.
This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will provide a research-based answer.
Photo by Faye Bayko.
The Peak Group of Companies is one of Canada’s fastest-growing home improvement products and installation companies. We are also a proud and long-standing partner of Home Depot Canada. Our partnership extends to the work of the Foundation, which last year launched its three-year $10-million dollar commitment to support an end to youth homelessness.
Over the last few months, we’ve asked ourselves: “How can we do more?” Ultimately we’ve landed on an issue that we believe requires greater corporate leadership: improving the employability of youth, housed through the foundation, who have previously faced very challenging circumstances.
As a first step in our commitment, we sought to build a partnership with a community agency that provides support to youth who face barriers to employment.
Next, we drafted a job description and began looking for our pilot partner. Building on the advice in Raising the Roof’s Employer Toolkit, we looked for a partner who could support both our company and a youth to be successful in this joint endeavor. We asked our potential partners the following:
- Who are the youth that you serve? What types of circumstances do they face?
- How do you support youth to be successful?
- How do you assess the job readiness of youth?
- How do you support youth and their employers at the outset of the program?
- Are there procedures in place to anticipate or respond to difficulties a youth may have during employment?
- What are your expectations of us?
In the end, we partnered with 360 Kids, an organization based in Markham, Ontario. We were impressed by their holistic approach to youth unemployment and the support they offered to employers. We’re pleased to say that through our partnership we’ve hired a fantastic new employee who is a welcome and valuable addition to our team.
As employers, we ask other employers to join us in focusing on underemployed youth for two reasons:
- In a challenging job market, youth face a number of barriers to employment. And not all youth have equal access to employment. Youth without housing can face unemployment due to additional barriers such discrimination, housing instability, limited work experience, transportation barriers, or even a lack of confidence.
- It’s a smart business decision. We’re not solving a social problem; we’re accessing an untapped resource. By engaging underemployed youth we’re able to hire from a pool of dedicated, enthusiastic employees with a range of experiences, skills and knowledge.
Although we hope to further our commitment to this issue, we don’t expect to address the needs of underemployed youth alone. Other employers have committed to this issue, but collectively, we’re still not doing enough. Too many youth face discrimination and a lack of access to meaningful job opportunities. Our advice to other employers, both large and small, is simple. First, commit to this issue with an open mind. Second, find a strong community partner with a proven track record. The rest will follow.
Six years ago we started offering a youth homelessness prevention program called Youth Reconnect. This was a large undertaking for us as it represented a completely new strategic direction for our services and was being piloted in a largely rural community approximately 50 kilometers away. Since then, we have successfully scaled the pilot from one municipality to twelve municipalities; serving the entire Niagara region and transcending both rural and urban communities. Over the last few months we have been analysing the data for this program and I’m very excited to see the release of the Youth Reconnect Works report. It shows the program’s impact as a successful model to end youth homelessness as well as providing an accounting of savings accumulated by various government ministries.
It is my hope that other communities and regions can benefit from what we’ve learned and apply it to ending youth homelessness in their communities. I recognize the difficulties inherent in making this happen and how daunting any change is for agencies. Given this I thought it might be useful to outline how we were able to overcome some early barriers. Two fundamental barriers were: 1) making the switch from primarily emergency to prevention and 2) a lack of resources and infrastructure to operate in an underserved rural community.
Making the Switch from Primarily Emergency to Prevention Focus
The majority of social service agencies were created as a response to crisis and developed their programs toward managing the crisis. In our case a number of citizens became concerned by the increasing number of youth who were sleeping rough on our streets. This crisis led to the creation of the RAFT which offered drop-in programs and ultimately a hostel. Shortly after I started here we expanded our shelter capacity from 10 beds to 24 beds with the anticipation that we’d soon need even more beds. It was this realization that forced us to ask some tough questions about what is our mission. Are we managers of homeless youth or are we looking to end youth homelessness? Answering this question required us to examine what data we had about who was using our services. I was quite surprised when it came to light that over 50% of the youth sleeping in our beds were from communities outside of St. Catharines, the city where our hostel is located. A number of other interesting facts also became apparent: 99% of youth were in high school immediately before they became homeless and youth from outside of St. Catharines took longer to be housed. Once we had reviewed our data and learned what we could of the youth who were using our beds, it became apparent that simply managing the crisis of youth homeless would in no way end the crisis. A prevention focus, moving upstream, was the only option which might allow us to stem the flow of new youth into our beds.
A Lack of Resources and Infrastructure
With our new found knowledge and focus we set out to determine how to implement a prevention program. We knew that in order to achieve our goals we needed to provide support pre-crisis or at the moment of homelessness. However, a lack of resources and infrastructure seemed an almost insurmountable obstacle; the drop-in/hostel already required us to fundraise just to maintain the status quo. Again our review of the data proved invaluable. The cost of creating the infrastructure in all of the communities, which were feeding youth into our beds was a non-starter. It was realized that the infrastructure already existed but for another purpose: education. All of our communities, large or small, urban or rural, were all served by high schools. Further, given that nearly all youth were in one of these high schools immediately prior to their homelessness gave us our prevention moment. In addition to the physical space offered by these schools we were also able to capitalize on the teacher-student relationship to help predict which students were near or in a housing crisis. With all of this infrastructure and staffing already in place, grafting a prevention program onto it became affordable; with just one of our workers able to cover two smaller rural communities.
- Ask the hard question: does our work achieve our goal?
- Examine the data to understand the youth being served.
- Look to community partners with resources that can be re-directed or supplemented.
Join us for a tweet chat today at 1PM (ET) to talk about youth homelessness and the role of schools, family and community with Michael Lethby. Use #HHChat to participate.
There is a popular parable, especially in healthcare, that explores the benefits of “upstream thinking” —the need to look at prevention, rather than just solutions—if we want to end social ills. Each telling of the story varies but essentially:
“Two people are standing at the edge of a river. All of a sudden a drowning child floats by and one person jumps in to save her. Then another child comes floating by and the other individual jumps in to pluck him from the water. But soon, more and more children are in the river and drowning. People cannot keep up with the demand. Eventually, someone decides to go upstream to figure out why kids keep falling/being thrown in the river in the first place.”
The same is true with homelessness. We understand a great deal these days about the pathways in and out of homelessness. We know a lot about how to provide services to people while they are homeless and we understand effective solutions, such as Housing First, that can end homelessness. We often fail, however, by not paying enough attention to how homelessness can be prevented in the first place.
The goal of primary prevention is to ‘work upstream’ to reduce risks, and typically involves universal interventions directed at whole communities, as well as targeted interventions for ‘at risk’ communities. With regards to homelessness, this could include information campaigns and educational programs, as well as strategic interventions designed to help address problems that may eventually contribute to homelessness, well before they arise. Poverty reduction strategies, anti-violence campaigns, early childhood supports and anti-discrimination work all can contribute to a reduction in homelessness down the road.
Eviction Prevention, including programs such as rent banks or tenant advocacy supports, is an example of primary prevention aimed at a specific population. Often the assistance of someone to help them navigate a rental tribunal or mediate with a landlord, or a loan/grant of a few hundred dollars can keep someone housed. Similarly, energy support programs for low-income households can help people facing energy poverty. In some climates the amount of money necessary to keep a home heated or cooled can mean the difference between staying housed or becoming homeless.
At-risk populations such as LGBTQ2S youth also need support: statistics show that 25-40% of homeless youth fall into this population group. By supporting families to understand sexual and gender orientation or by training/supporting foster homes to be LGBTQ2S positive, the number of youth who are homeless can be dramatically reduced.
Today, October 17, is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. The United Nations has focused this year’s theme on complete eradication of extreme poverty in poor countries of the global South, where—thanks to concerted global efforts led by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals—rates of extreme poverty have been cut in half since 1990.
The same cannot be said for Toronto, where rates of hunger, homelessness, and family poverty have ballooned in that same period, driven by economic and social trends of increasing inequality and polarization. Research by David Hulchanski’s Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership shows that our city is becoming so segregated by income and race that it could be seen as three cities: a booming “City #1,” well-resourced central zones of mostly white, upper-income households; the diminishing “City #2” of ethnically mixed and middle-income households; and a growing “City #3” of low-income neighbourhoods far from transit and services, where most residents are members of racialized communities.
My project, Family Homelessness in Toronto’s Inner Suburbs examined the housing conditions of families in the aging apartment buildings that are concentrated in City #3. What we found was striking: nine out of ten families have housing that fails to meet basic United Nations standards of adequacy. Their housing is unaffordable, overcrowded, unsafe, insecure, and in need of repair. Family homelessness is rampant in these neighbourhoods, but it is mostly hidden. Many families lose their housing due to violence, eviction, and unsafe conditions. When they do, they usually double-up with other families in their neighbourhoods instead of going to shelters.
In consultation with an advisory board of front-line agencies and tenant leaders in these neighbourhoods, we have produced a new research summary, released today. The flyer, which will be translated into multiple languages, aims to put this information in the hands and on the screens of tenants and front-line workers.
Toronto’s housing crisis is urgent, and it won’t be solved by research alone. Citizens need to stand up and demand that all levels of government uphold the right to adequate housing. We hope this flyer can provide evidence and information to strengthen tenants’ organizing.
At tonight’s Mayoral Debate on Housing and Homelessness, candidates will tell us where they stand. In our last election, the slogan Respect for Taxpayers won the day – and we all saw how that worked out. What about Respect for Tenants? Which candidate’s policies will improve the housing situation for low-income families in Toronto?
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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.