Plugging in the Technology for Sydney’s Homeless Youth

A new study will develop solutions together with young people in Sydney who have experienced homelessness, to support their access to and use of digital technology in city centres.

'If it wasn't for my phone I'd be sleeping in my car, with the phone I can get into a refuge and have a roof over my head at least.'

– Study participant

Hands of a young man holding a mobile phone.

A new project, Making Connections: Young People, Homelessness and Digital Access in the City will seek to develop digital access solutions – like charging phones and accessing Wi-Fi, simple things that most people take for granted. Young people experiencing homelessness and service providers in Sydney and Parramatta will be co-collaborators in the project. The project is led by ICS School-based member Dr Justine Humphry, and is part of the Connected and Creative program.

Associate Professor Jane Burns, CEO of the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre which is funding the project, says that research shows a clear need for different forms of digital access for people experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness in central city areas.

'With 95% of families, young people and adults experiencing homelessness owning a mobile phone, there is strong demand for public, safe, affordable spaces to go online and charge phones, and a need for local, real-time information on relevant services such as food vans, accommodation support, public toilets and showers, not to mention the importance of staying connected – a key protective factor against mental illness'.

While the precise rate of youth homelessness is difficult to estimate, youth are 'over-represented in the homeless population' and quite likely underestimated as well.

'It's essential to be connected when experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness,' says lead researcher Dr Humphry. In an Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) study conducted last year, she found that contacting emergency services and medical help were the most important uses for mobiles and the internet, after contacting friends and family.

'Although Wi-Fi hotspots and charge stations are on the rise in many city centres, people who are homeless find regular digital access a real struggle. Digitally connected 'smart' and 'creative' cities need to be designed in a way that caters for the most marginalised and their connectivity needs – not just the needs of the most well-resourced and connected,' she says.

In this hands-on project, young people recruited from a range of youth-based homelessness services will work with a designer to create their own digital access solutions in a series of innovation workshops. The first of these, to be held in November 2015, will focus on improving access to and connectivity with support services and social networks. The second, to be held in February 2016, will bring young people from this first workshop together with relevant stakeholders such as local government, businesses, charities, telecommunication companies, support services and libraries to develop ways to financially support and implement these projects.

Posted: 3 July 2015.