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Homeless and connected: mobile phones and the Internet in the lives of homeless Australians

Homelessness Mobile phones Digital divide Internet Mobile technology Digital communications Access to information Sydney Melbourne
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New research shows high mobile and smart phone ownership among people experiencing homelessness, but staying connected is a struggle.


This project set out to research how a group of consumers – people experiencing homelessness – access and use mobile phones and the Internet (covering fixed and wireless Internet sources). The aim was to provide the evidence to inform the delivery of public services by community, welfare and government agencies to this group of consumers, and to develop and improve on telecommunications policies and initiatives that address the needs and challenges of consumers facing hardship, including homelessness.

Traditional approaches to researching homelessness and digital technology have focused on barriers or ‘gaps’ in accessing technology, known as the ‘digital divide’. This project goes beyond this approach by recognising that many people experiencing homelessness are already mobile phone and Internet consumers that have unique patterns of ownership and use, which correspond to their homeless circumstances (Newman, Baum and Biedrzycki, 2010, 2012; Le Dantec, 2010; Yoshida, 2010). A confluence of trends – shifting patterns of connectivity, and a push to online and mobile delivery of all high volume or ‘heavy user’ government services – has made researching these patterns an urgent priority.

The project involved working with the support of the national peak advocacy body for people experiencing homelessness, Homelessness Australia, and seven homelessness accommodation and support services in inner and outer metropolitan Sydney and Melbourne.

In summary, it was found that for the 95 families, young people and adults who participated in the study:

  • A mobile phone was essential – the most important uses of the mobile phone, after contacting friends and family, were: contacting emergency services (52%); support services (49%), and medical assistance (48%).
  • Most had a mobile phone – 95% had a mobile phone and 77% reported having a smart phone.
  • Staying connected was difficult – shortage of credit, service and power restrictions, number changes and handset loss resulted in partial or restricted access to one or a number of mobile and Internet services.
  • Significant impacts resulted from connectivity limitations – such as not being able to contact essential support and emergency services, being at physical risk without the ability to reach help and not meeting basic eligibility requirements of some government services.
  • Users had a wide range of connectivity and affordability strategies – using a pre-paid mobile service and alternative Internet sources such as free Wi-Fi hotspots and Internet access in public libraries and accommodation centres were key measures for keeping costs down and staying connected.
  • Mature male adults who were single and experiencing long-term homelessness were more likely to be without a mobile phone and not use the Internet – this group made up 60% of those with no mobile phone access and of these 40% reported they didn’t use the Internet at all.
  • Vulnerable consumers with complex needs, that is, with a set of overlapping health and support needs[1], had the most payment difficulties and debt relating to mobile phone services.

For agencies in the process of, or embarking on the reform of their services, these findings point to the potential to use online and mobile platforms to deliver services to and engage clients who are experiencing homelessness. Many in this group are not laggards in technology – indeed when it comes to mobiles – they are leaders. At the same time, while having a mobile phone is commonplace for many people experiencing homelessness, staying connected is a struggle and access is not guaranteed. Moreover, within this population, there are some who are especially likely to be without any form of mobile or Internet technology and experience serious difficulties with the cost and terms of post-paid plans.

It is important to recognise that the imperative to have a mobile phone is not primarily driven by a desire to own or upgrade to the latest gadget. For people experiencing homelessness this is a matter of survival – there is no ready alternative like a household telephone or broadband connection to use when homeless. A wide range of activities which constitute fundamental forms of social and economic participation, including accessing emergency services, medical help and crisis support, hinge on ready access to a phone. With large-scale patterns of changing social connectivity and the shift of government and other services to online modes of delivery, the need to have a mobile phone – with access to the Internet – is greatly magnified.

This imperative comes with a cost. For online and mobile services to be accessible and beneficial to this group, the cost of access and the specific barriers and limitations facing consumers who are homeless must be addressed. There are a number of ways that providers of mobile services as well as government and support services can contribute to this goal.

A set of recommendations aimed at these groups, and guided by the principles of continuity of service, affordability and flexibility of access, are detailed in the final section of this report. In summary these are:

Recommendations for Mobile Service Providers:

  1. Specify homelessness in financial hardship policies adopted by mobile service providers and ensure that customer service operators are aware of the special need for people affected by homelessness to maintain continuity of service when negotiating bill extensions and payments.
  2. Ensure cost effective methods for consumers to reach staff and teams with responsibility for hardship across multiple platforms such as direct contact through 1800 number[2], web form, call back options, Live Chat, Facebook, apps and via Financial Counselling and Homelessness services.
  3. Introduce new aid and subsidy programs (or extend existing programs such as Telstra’s ‘Access for Everyone’ program) to support access to mobile and data services (for example, handsets, credit recharge, discount options and Wi-Fi access).
  4. Consider ways assistance programs can be provided that works effectively across all mobile service providers, for example a way for community agencies to recharge their clients mobile service, a card with call and data credit that can be used with any pre and post paid mobile service and provider, or a subsidised or free voicemail and inbox messaging service, again, for use with any pre and post paid mobile and service provider.
  5. Offer more widely assistance programs and available discounts through existing partnership programs (for example, the SMS/call packages for support providers through the Youth Connected Program from Vodafone Australia Foundation (VAF)) and initiate outreach programs in collaboration with homelessness services (including specialist legal clinics) to, for example, provide on the spot assistance to clients with telecommunications matters.
  6. Work in partnership with support and housing providers, libraries, local councils and users of these services to develop and promote affordable Internet access and provisioning solutions that integrate with where and how people experiencing homelessness use digital technology (for example, Internet access points and self-service terminals, Wi-Fi hotspots, options to switch to available Wi-Fi services, low cost and pay-per-use mobile broadband, power recharge stations and shelters for securely storing equipment).

Recommendations for Government Agencies and Support Services:

  1. Ensure cost effective contact methods and multiple access points to services (especially for high volume services) such as 1800 numbers[3], call back options, Facebook, Live Chat, SMS and other social media, web-based platforms and apps.
  2. Build digital capacity of homelessness services through adequate funding and resourcing to integrate mobile, social media and other web-based platforms into regular contact and support activities (if any of these are considered to raise privacy concerns, these should be addressed as early as possible in development).
  3. Equip staff of homelessness services with the skills and resources to provide information and referrals on telecommunications bill, contract and debt matters, and to be able to make direct and immediate contact with the specialist hardship teams of mobile service providers on behalf of their clients.
  4. Preserve non-digital contact and service points for customers who are non-Internet users and those without access to mobile and online technologies.
  5. Work in partnership with mobile service providers, libraries, local councils and service users to develop and promote affordable Internet access and provisioning solutions that integrate with where and how people experiencing homelessness use digital technology (for example, fixed Internet access points and self-service terminals, Wi-Fi hotspots, options to switch to available Wi-Fi services, low cost and pay-per-use mobile broadband, power recharge stations and shelters for securely storing equipment).


[1] Rankin and Regan (2004) provide a definition of ‘complex needs’ as not related to individual characteristics but a “framework for understanding multiple, interlocking needs that span health and social issues” (p. 1).

[2] Dependent on the implementation of the new framework for call charges from mobile phones to 1800 numbers developed by ACMA and the Telecommunications Industry.

[3] As above.

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