Study on digital needs of women experiencing homelessness

Benton has just released a research report from Hoan Nguyen on women experiencing homelessness, digital engagement and social inclusion. Regular readers may have picked up that these are topics that I follow, although not always together. Obviously I follow broadband here; I volunteer with communities of people experiencing homelessness. So I was very interested in this study.

The author conducted a 10-month field research to understand the dynamics of digital access and use among people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles. What struck me immediately was that the first barrier is access to a smartphone or device…

Many of them battled every day to protect their phones from being stolen, lost, or broken due to their precarious living conditions. People living on the street and in transitional housing walked a long distance to find a public charging outlet or else had to rent it in a nearly mobile phone shop. Technology, to them, is more of a luxury than a necessity. Without a doubt, the instability of digital access is an issue for this population.

I might not call technology a luxury. I think the precarious nature of access means it is not (and maybe cannot be) a priority. Especially during the pandemic, it starts with access to a device.

Just yesterday, I walked by a gentleman nodding off with his phone precariously in his hand. This was a very public place and during the day so I figured it wasn’t worth waking him up. But losing a phone can be that quick. You fall asleep or you barter it for safety, warmth or drugs. Once the phone is gone, you lose immediate access but also, you may be shut out of any online identity. As many of us have experienced briefly – if you can’t get into your text or email it can be difficult to log into an account from a new device, even if you have the password.

When the technology can be so easily taken away, it’s difficult to rely on it – especially when you’re also worried about when you will sleep, eat, wash up and more.

The author shares her major findings…

  1. Homeless women face various forms of marginalization
  2. Technology use facilitates homeless women in mitigating social exclusion and achieving social opportunities
    • Social Support, Material Opportunities, and Personal Autonomy:
    • Identity Management:
    • Collective Action for Social Change:

And implications…

My ethnographic fieldwork and interviews show that homeless women tapped into digital resources necessary and available to them to stay connected with supportive systems, challenge the status quo, and seek employment and housing opportunities – that is the role of ICTs in mediating the women’s agency and autonomy.[iv] These are real efforts made to try to improve their capacities and change their lives. Certainly, one can argue that it is very difficult for marginalized groups to change their lives or the conditions that lead to their marginalization, and that it is harder to uproot some stigmas (e.g., chronic health conditions) than others (e.g., homelessness, poverty). However, the capacity to effectuate change, or one’s efforts to make change, is valuable in and of itself, regardless of outcomes.

This entry was posted in Digital Divide, Research by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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