A new program providing smartphones to the homeless could also latch onto the opportunity to improve their health as well, journalist Anne Zieger says.
Recently, a program offered homeless people a mobile phone in an effort to connect them to their families, latest news, weather warnings and even job openings. The Mobile4All initiative, which is run by Santa Clara, Calif.-based Community Technology Alliance, recently partnered with Google to distribute 1,000 Nexus smartphones to people on the street.
While their efforts are well-intended and empowering, they could also provide a starting point for embracing medical, mental health or substance abuse problems among this population. Given the incidence of such problems among this population, I think it's a promising idea to consider.
Homeless staying connected
Like many of us, Sandra, a Santa Clara resident, just can’t live without her mobile phone.
She uses it to keep in touch with her family, stay on top of the news and even connect with job opportunities. Last week, she even received a text message that advised her of a storm on the horizon, which quite possibly saved her life.
You see, Sandra is homeless, and the text she received also let her know which shelters were available to ride out the storm. Sandra, featured on the CTA Web site, is part of a new program aimed at using mobile phones to study the impact smartphones can have on the homeless.
“One of the hardest parts of being homeless is that lack of connection,” said Michelle Ogburn, project manager for the Community Technology Alliance in Santa Clara, California.
“Those of us who aren’t homeless joke that we wouldn’t last a day without our phones, but it’s even harder for the homeless, who are isolated and alone. So, we’re discovering that these phones can help the homeless reconnect to the world and enable them to get jobs and rejoin society.”
Connecting the homeless to society is a noble mission, but also addressing their medical and mental health issues could add a lot of value. The overall goal is to restore homeless people’s dignity and connection to society—and helping guide them medically could go a long way toward achieving that.
A snapshot of homeless mobile use
As part of its initiative, the CTA performed the first study on homelessness and smartphones, and discovered the following:
- Very low-income and homeless people are adopting mobile phones in large numbers, and are willing to pay a relatively large percentage of their monthly income for voice and data services.
- However, affordability continues to be the major obstacle for individuals to have mobile phone and data access.
- Mobile phones are routinely disconnected because people cannot make monthly payments.
- Of the demographic cross-section obtained from this survey, people searching for a job tend to have less access to a mobile phone.
- Awareness and use of the California Lifeline program is very low, probably due to the lack of wireless options in this program.
Their mission is to not only help the homeless reconnect, but also use the phones as a way of tracking their journeys back into society. Mobile4All is striving to eliminate the cost barriers and prevent smartphones belonging to the homeless from being turned off because of late payments.
“While a service interruption is annoying for most of us, it can be crippling for the homeless,” said Ogburn, who runs the CTA’s homeless management information system for Santa Clara County. “They lose their number, which makes it difficult for employers and family to reach them, and it creates a major setback to whatever plans they’ve made to move forward.”
The next step for homeless mobile use
To help keep those Nexus phones turned on, CTA also has an IndieGoGo campaign to support the effort, and they’ve partnered with Vodaphone and Citigroup for foundational help. As they continue to gain ground, the team in place is discovering that they are not in danger of running out of ways smartphones can help the homeless.
In the meantime, CTA is thinking about creating a smartphone app that helps the homeless set goals and keep track of their own progress. While this app may be of good use, I think it’d be even better if healthcare options were added to the drawing board.
Anne Zieger is a veteran journalist who’s been covering the U.S. healthcare scene for over 25 years. You can follow Anne on Twitter @ziegerhealth.
The nuviun blog is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues in global digital health. The views are solely those of the author.