Homeless people use Facebook and Whatsapp too!

In this blog Fran Calvo, a homelessness practitioner and scholar visiting I-SPHERE from Universitat Ramon Llull in Catalonia, reflects on the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) by members of the homeless population.

Picture this scene: on an afternoon two years ago I was visiting a couple who had been living on a park bench in a central city square for eight years. At the time, I was on my rounds working as a street outreach worker for the Mental Health and Addiction Network of Girona, supporting individuals living (and sleeping) in the streets or in squats. When I arrived I found Maribel alone, crying and very anxious. The conversation went as follows:

Fran Calvo, I-SPHERE Visiting Scholar

-Hi Maribel, how are you? What’s wrong? -I asked her.

-Hi Fran, I’m very worried because I cannot find Jose [her husband]. We argued yesterday morning and he left. I don’t know where he is.

-What can be done to improve this situation? – I asked.

-If I had my mobile phone I could send him a WhatsApp message but it broke last month. Maybe I will go now to the library and send him a message through Facebook.

I had been working as an outreach worker for more than ten years at the time, but this was the first occasion I was made aware of the use of social network sites by my clients. This kind of scenario is illustrative of the role increasingly played by Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in the lives of many homeless people around the world.

Research conducted in the USA shows that homeless people use ICT in very similar ways to other members of the general population, and that this is especially true for young homeless people. It might be very surprising for some members of the public to be walking in the street and watch a homeless person who is begging check if s/he has an unread WhatsApp message, but this is the reality for many now. In 2015, a Guardian article highlighted something of a paradox: the use of an object that, for the general population, could be considered a luxury article, is in actual fact, a vital tool of stability for homeless people. Why is this? There are many reasons, but two are particularly important.

First, ICT facilitates communication with others through multiple platforms, and communication is one of the most fundamental of human needs. The isolation associated with living on the streets can induce or exacerbate mental health problems. I developed two studies in Catalonia investigating associations between Social Network use and mental health. The first was descriptive and showed that one in three homeless persons in Catalonia has a smartphone. They access the Internet via free wifi points in the city or in the public libraries or social centres. In the study we used scales of two important psychological constructs – self-esteem and satisfaction with life – and discovered that use of Facebook and WhatsApp was associated with better levels of both.

Given these results, we then asked ourselves: Could social network sites be used in beneficial ways by service interventions? In a second study, soon to be published, I compared the impacts of two different forms of ICT training on self-esteem, self-efficacy, satisfaction with life and social skills. This randomised control trial compared outcomes for one (trial) group who were taught how to use Facebook or improve their abilities in Facebook use, with a second (control) group who underwent the basic IT skill training normally offered to homeless people by social services in Spain. The study demonstrated that teaching participants basic computer skills (how to open, save, and close a text document etc.) or how to search for a job on-line could be counterproductive in that it increased frustration levels. On the other hand, teaching Facebook opened up another communication world. In the evaluation of this training one person experiencing homelessness said:

Maybe I couldn’t contact with my family because there are angry for the things I did in the past, but they accepted my Facebook invitation! And now I can write to my nephew and my brother and I view how they are and see pictures! I’m very happy for that.

A second reason why ICT is an important tool to improve the situation of homeless people lies in the potential it offers for service provision. One example is the use of smartphones to collect data for an official count of homeless persons in collaboration with people in this situation. In another study colleagues and I evaluated the potential of WhatsApp to improve data collection in the official public count of individuals experiencing homelessness in Girona. Persons living in illegal squats agreed to send data about how many people were resident in their squat through this app, because they considered this virtual option safer than the traditional counting (by volunteers on the street) and furthermore they were active subjects in the counting process.

Returning to my story, Maribel finally found Jose thanks to the use of Facebook. Unfortunately, Jose tragically died a few months later as a consequence of his alcoholism. Our objective is to try and find different ways to improve the situation of people like Maribel and Jose, and I think that technology offers an underexplored means of doing so. Increasing free wifi access and the availability of points to charge batteries of devices would help. So too would providing information about services for homeless persons in real time so that they need not spend excessive time walking between different shelters, soup-kitchens, drop-in centres and so on only to find that they are closed or have no capacity. There is also potential to experiment with the delivery of mobile devices to monitor treatments and medication adherence for persons with severe mental illness. These are but a few examples of how how we might incorporate technology in service provision to homeless people.