Plugging in the technology for Sydney’s homeless youth

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

The Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre 'Making Connections' research project will be undertaken in partnership with the University of Western Sydney, and seeks 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.

Research shows a clear need for different forms of digital access for people experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness in central city areas. Of the families, young people and adults experiencing homelessness, 95% own a mobile phone, reinforcing that 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.

While the precise rate of youth homelessness is difficult to estimate, young people experiencing homelessness make up almost half of the homeless population - 42 percent are under 25 - and struggle to maintain digital connectivity.

"It's essential to be connected when experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness," says Dr Justine Humphry, lead researcher on the project, Lecturer of Cultural and Social Analysis at UWS and member of the UWS Institute for Culture and Society. In an Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) study conducted last year, Dr Humphry 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," says Dr Humphry.

Young and Well CRC CEO, Associate Professor Jane Burns, also noted the importance of staying connected.

"Many young people in Australia are marginalised or isolated because of their circumstances, however, being able to access technology can have a huge impact on a young person's life. I'm excited that this project will explore innovative ways of ensuring young people experiencing homelessness can be supported to access technology and allow them to connect with others – a key protective factor against mental illness," Associate Professor Burns 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.

About the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre

The Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre is an Australian-based, international research centre that unites young people with researchers, practitioners, innovators and policy-makers from over 70 partner organisations. Together, we explore the role of technology in young people's lives, and how it can be used to improve the mental health and wellbeing of young people aged 12 to 25. The Young and Well CRC is established under the Australian Government's Cooperative Research Centres Programme..

Key findings from Dr Humphry's 2014 research on homeless families, adults and young people

  • 95% own a mobile
  • 77% have a smartphone
  • 47% use the internet to look for a job
  • 82% use pre-paid mobile plans
  • 50% use free public Wi-Fi to keep costs down
  • 66% use Facebook, 45% Instant Messenger, or 30% Skype to communicate with friends and family
  • 57% find it difficult to fund their mobile phone usage
  • 32% report difficulty charging their phone and many report lack of phone credit and phone loss


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31 July 2015