Making connections: young people, homelessness and digital access in the city

30 Jun 2016

The importance of digital access for homeless young Australians is well recognised: for staying healthy and safe, to move beyond homelessness and to socially connect and participate. A mobile phone and access to the internet provides a way to access emergency services, service information and support, employment, education and training, and housing opportunities.

Although there is a high level of mobile phone use among people experiencing homelessness in Australia there are also a number of known access barriers that are a product of their homelessness such as obtaining power for charging, affording mobile voice and data plans and keeping safe and belongings secure. We know that for those in homeless circumstances there is an increased risk of exacerbating disadvantage and creating new service barriers without full and regular digital access (Humphry 2014, Goodwin-Smith and Myatt 2014).

City centres are important places for homeless young people because of the availability of help and support services and because of their affordances of connectivity over suburban, regional and rural areas. Yet, even in cities, options for connecting via WiFi and other means are inadequate, and highly uneven.

The aim of the project Making Connections was to work with homeless young people to find out more about their connectivity issues and develop solutions for making it easier and safer to access digital technology and the support needed to move out of homelessness.

We involved young people who have recently been homeless in the innovation process, recognising that the knowledge and insights gained through their experiences are vital for creating meaningful and relevant solutions. The project involved two co-design workshops held in Sydney run by a participatory designer. Young people who had experienced homelessness were recruited from inner Sydney and western Sydney homelessness services to attend the first of these workshops in December 2015. The second workshop in February 2016 brought together stakeholder representatives from local councils, libraries, charities, mobile service providers and youth services, to work on the ideas generated at the first workshop and develop these towards their implementation.

Five key principles of connectivity have been identified based on the understandings and practices of the young people in this project:

  • Free and widespread access to power
  • Availability of free WiFi/mobile & fixed internet
  • Robust devices and affordable mobile plans
  • Security of belongings and self
  • Enhanced access to support services
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