polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Homeless 2.0

by Vivien Park

When a photo of a soup kitchen patron taking a picture of Michelle Obama with his cell phone camera surfaced earlier this year, it essentially jump-started a national debate on whether the homeless should have access to technology.

Considering how many mobile phones and laptops are discarded each year, and with the number of public pay phones and library hours decreasing, it seems not only logical but sensible to put mobile technology into the hands of the homeless. A simple mobile phone can be used to connect to current and potential employers, track food stamps, apply for public housing, report whereabouts to loved ones and, if necessary, call the cops when being assaulted or robbed. Quite simply, owning a mobile phone is no longer a luxury, it is a lifeline. Mobile devices are small and packs away easily, and those who search for it can usually find access to free wifi and limited power supplies.

Since an increasing amount of homeless are new to the streets, it is not hard to imagine that some of them might still have their old mobile phones and laptops. Many homeless also have jobs, and therefore a limited source of income. It is sometimes enough to purchase a pay-as-you-go phones that cost as little as $10. These phones are often available at discount stores that also accepts food stamps.

Beyond basic needs, technology also serves as a tool to manage public perception, and can be a reminder that communication and access to information are basic human rights. It is much easier to cross the social divide online than in real life. A connected homeless can utilize the internet as a forum to share their stories and survival tips, or hide the status their living situation (and associated stigma) when looking for income opportunities.

Echoing the sentiment of my previous post, I look to distributing affordable and sustainable temporary solutions as a realistic way to manage the current homeless situation. There are a number of resources and organizations that give out free mobile phones with prepaid minutes and refurbished old laptops to those with low income. Here are a few links:
I'm sure I'm missing a lot, so I look forward to seeing this list grow. Hopefully, even more homeless-focused technology distribution programs will be created in the near future.

Credits: Photo of soup kitchen from Telegraph. Photo of homeless laptop user from the Wall Street Journal.