Mobile phones an important lifeline for people experiencing homelessness

Did you know that 95% of people experiencing homelessness own a mobile phone? The recent University of Sydney and Australian Communications Consumer Action Network survey found that mobiles were not just popular, but viewed as an essential piece of technology for everything from personal safety to finding work. Although connectivity isn’t guaranteed (98% used the phone primarily for receiving calls), most people reported using a mobile phone to stay in touch with family and friends, contact services and find work. All of these are crucial, because they allow people to maintain and/or build the social networks that are essential to ending and preventing homelessness.

The survey also found that people used a range of tactics to keep the costs associated with mobile phone usage down, and that most of the phones themselves were a gift, second-hand or borrowed. Around 82% of respondents used a pre-paid card, and most took advantage of free wireless internet to search for jobs, use social media sites and even cut on calling costs by using Skype (a free calling service). Interestingly, some people also used budgeting apps to track living expenses on a low income.  

The study made some recommendations as to how telecommunications providers could improve their services to people experiencing homelessness:

  • Recognise the unique issues of people experiencing homelessness in hardship policies, contact methods and staff training
  • Create and extend aid and subsidy programs to support mobile and data services and make mobile credit recharge/discount options available to services supporting people who are homeless and in crisis

An example of such a program is The Telstra Pre-Paid Recharge Program, which provides $20 re-charge cards to clients of domestic and family violence services who need to be connected at all times.

For government agencies and support services the study recommended:

  • Improving community phone and internet facilities to assist telephone/online access by people experiencing homelessness
  • Ensuring cost effective access points to government services from mobile devices such as 1800 numbers, call back, live chat and text
  • Preserving alternate contact and service points for non-digital and digital customers without online access
  • Building digital capacity of staff and services to support clients better online and via mobile

Given this information, it is timely that socially-conscious tech group Infoxchange recently won a $500,000 grant as part of the Google Impact Challenge to develop an app called “Homeless Assist,” which will help people locate nearby homelessness and related services. With around 1,200 specialist homelessness services and 300,000 health, welfare and community support services around Australia, Infoxchange hopes to reduce the number of unmet requests by 50% with the app.

As internet and mobile phone usage continues to rise in Australia, it is certainly a positive sign that services and telecommunications providers are making efforts to make sure people experiencing homelessness  can stay connected.