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.

Used cell phones collected for a drive

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 thehub@edu.yorku.ca and we will provide a research-based answer.

Photo by Faye Bayko.

Emma WoolleyResearch AssistantCanadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University