ThinkProgress has dedicated a portion of our coverage on Wednesday, June 29th to reporting on the state of homelessness in Washington, D.C. This story is part of that series.
Twenty-three year old Mary Hicks-Pope has been homeless for two years. But like any other 20-something, her phone is her lifeline.
“If I didn’t have my phone I don’t know what I would have done,” she said. “I just disagree with people who say phones aren’t important. That they aren’t needed or used. That’s something we dealt with in foster care…getting a working phone.”
Hicks-Pope went without reliable communication until she found out about the LGBT Technology Partnership and Institute’s Connect 4 Life pilot program launched in 2015.
The program teamed up with local Washington, D.C. shelters and centers that catered to youth whom identify as LGBT and homeless — including the Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders, formerly the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL) advocacy center, where Hicks-Pope learned about the program. She was one of 25 individuals who got a free cellphone and plan for a year through LGBT Tech’s partnership with Cricket Wireless.
You could very well go from a middle class family with access to a cell phone and computer to no access to a computer or supportive network and be in the worst possible position.
“When you’re kicked out of your home as a youth, you may have a cell phone, your parents may let you take it. But you need internet access,” said Christopher Wood, who founded LGBT Tech’s Connect 4 Life program. “You could very well go from a middle class family with access to a cell phone and computer to no access to a computer or supportive network and be in the worst possible position.”
Wood, who was kicked out of his childhood home after his parents caught him with his boyfriend, knows what it’s like to only have a phone without a place to stay.
“People think, ‘Oh my gosh [homeless youth] on the streets, living in cardboard boxes,’” he said. “They’re taking what they see on the streets and equating that to what someone is going through, when in reality a lot of times, especially if you are a youth, you have a circle of friends” to rely on for temporary housing.
Wood was able to return home after staying with a friend briefly. Based on his experience, he vowed to help fellow LGBT youth who find themselves homeless. According to a 2011 study, 62 percent of homeless youth own a cellphone but only 40 percent have a working phone. And having a phone can be the difference between sleeping in a public space, risking physical harm, and calling a trusted friend, family member, or case worker who can give you place to stay.
‘When I Got The Phone, Everything Became Easier’
Hicks-Pope always knew she was gay. At age 10, she was adopted but later kicked out by her adoptive mother and put into foster care. She aged out of the foster care system at 21 but couldn’t afford to live on her own after losing her job.
“When I was a child my biggest fear was being homeless,” said Hicks-Pope, mentioning that she was previously diagnosed with severe depression. “In the past two years, I’ve lived in six different places,” mainly with family but also in shelters. Getting a cellphone through Connect 4 Life helped give her a sense of stability.
“Moving a lot has affected my college experience,” said Hicks-Pope, a freshman human relations student at Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C. She is now living with a family friend — a fellow lesbian woman — and is confident that she’ll be able to stay until she can better support herself.
When I was a child my biggest fear was being homeless.
“It was hard keeping in contact; the people I know live out of state,” Hicks-Pope said. “When I got the phone, everything became easier. I could check my email.”
Many of those emails are job related. Hicks-Pope aspires to be a sociology professor and currently has temporary employment through the government-led DC Career Connections jobs training program, and is hoping to get a more permanent position in the fall.
According to Pew Research, 28 percent of job seekers use their phones to find employment. Half of them use smartphones to apply for those jobs.
“My phone has just been huge in my life,” Hicks-Pope said, recalling a time when her computer charger died last year during the semester. “I literally typed my papers on my phone just to turn them in on time. It’s been very useful.”
Using Tech To Empower Homeless LGBT Youth
Technology is crucial for survival and quality of life, particularly in the LGBT community because of the high risk of isolation from family support systems. Data on homelessness is elusive, in part because the demographic doesn’t always identify as homeless even when their living arrangements are temporary.
According to the American Institutes for Research’s National Center on Family Homelessness, there are an estimated 2.5 million homeless children in the U.S. Forty-three percent of homeless youth in Washington, D.C., identify as LGBT with 15 percent saying they were kicked out because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Nationally, there are an estimated 650,000 homeless LGBT youth.
Connect 4 Life wanted to get a better sense of how LGBT homeless youth use technology in their daily lives. So the program sent out monthly survey questions via text to the 25 youth in the pilot program.
Only five of the 25 youth kept in touch, actively sought help, and were able to transition into stable jobs and living situations. Hicks-Pope is one of them.
Those results seem dismal but Wood isn’t discouraged. Instead, the program is expanding to Atlanta in July and relaunching in Washington, D.C., later this summer. “We realized a lot of these kids are accessing information at centers, wherever they can get a hold of a computer and an internet connection or public WiFi,” he said.
http://thinkprogress.org/education/2016/05/30/3781837/homeless-college-students/The solution is to make local LGBT homeless centers the nexus of the tech program, while Connect 4 Life focuses on providing them with expensive tech resources. To do that, Connect 4 Life recently merged with tech refurbishing and recycling program PowerOn in Los Angeles, and strictly handles the buying, selling, refurbishing of phones, computers, and tablets for donation to LGBT homeless centers across the country.
“We have centers out there that are starving for technology. And with the majority of their resources and funds going into the program-focused work and the youth themselves, for them to shell out hundreds of dollars for computers, it’s a lot of money that isn’t available,” Wood said.
Under the new arrangement, LGBT centers will be able to monitor how youth are doing with the new technology and collect donated tech that PowerOn refurbishes and then returns to the center. There’s also a plan to donate devices to individual youth who graduate out of the program as they get jobs and move to stable housing.
An app is also in the works, Wood said, to help fuel more research on LGBT homeless youth and track how devices and desktops are used — but not user location data. PowerOn is brainstorming a potential safety function that allows users to report dangerous areas.
More Than A Luxury
It’s easy to dismiss cellphones as a luxurious distraction, but for the homeless, the ability to call or text for help can be a matter of life or death, Wood said.
“This is no longer just a first world privilege. If you don’t have access to communication lines, you’re not going to be successful, which goes back to the digital divide conversation that’s been happening for so long,” he said.
I literally typed my papers on my phone just to turn them in on time.
Technology, particularly internet access, has become so integral in daily life that without it, basic necessities such as finding a job, looking for health information, news or pertinent information about one’s community are nearly impossible. That divide is especially felt among homeless LGBT youth who may conceal their sexual or gender identity to avoid being targeted.
“Any time spent without access is a lack of information, a lack of support, a lack of progress in that individual’s life. That’s what we need to keep driving toward. You can’t make your life better without technology,” Wood said.
That couldn’t be more true for Hicks-Pope who is both grateful for the Connect 4 Life program but also concerned about how she will get by as she “graduates” from the program later this month and has to take over payments.
“I feel good, a little bad because my phone will be off,” said Hicks-Pope who doesn’t think she will have enough income to make her first monthly payment. “I will have to figure something out once again.”
Wood said the program is working with the SMYAL advocacy center to make sure the five remaining program participants can take over their plans by July.
This post has been updated to reflect SMYAL’s new name.