Rapidly changing technologies are challenging widely held assumptions about who goes on-line. Although homeless populations and other marginalized groups were framed in the past as the technology “have-nots,” the new digital reality is more complex. Recent research shows street-involved youth’s use of cell phones and computers is similar to use by housed youth. Although much of the research is from the US, my own experience and those of others who work with street-involved youth across Canadian cities confirms that street-involved youth are “digital natives” – growing up in environments where computers and cell phones are present in some form.

This infographic shows data from a 2014 survey I conducted with 135 street-involved youth aged 15-24 in three British Columbia, Canada communities: Prince George, Vancouver and Victoria. This research demonstrates that street-involved youth’s use of digital technology and social networking sites is approaching the ubiquitous and persistent use by their housed peers. The vast majority of street-involved youth are using Facebook to stay connected (94%) and they are negotiating physical space and social relationships to have on-line access through friends, public libraries and drop in centers. While cell phones have become a vital communication and entertainment device, their ownership is transitory and fractured: some currently owned phones had no minutes (29%) or were broken (17%) while 56% of youth surveyed had two or more cell phones in the year and 37% carry debts to previous cell phone providers. The social inequities that bring youth to the complex and risk-filled world of the street exclude them from integral parts of society as different and outside the norm. This exploratory research suggests how street-involved youths’ online expression and communication may be a key means by which they negotiate and, temporarily, transcend the challenges of their daily lives, finding small ways towards social inclusion. They stay in touch and make plans with friends and family, search for resources and information, including health information, housing and work and find ways to create and entertain themselves and others with music, photos and videos.

This project would not have been possible without the support of Prof. Lisa Mitchell (Anthropology, UVic) and funds from SSHRC, guidance and suggestions from More Than One Street and CARBC and the enthusiasm and cooperation of the community agencies and youth in all three BC communities.