How homeless people use their cellphones

Published: Mon 15 Sep 2014 10:21 AM
Canterbury student investigating how homeless people use their cellphones
September 15, 2014
A University of Canterbury postgraduate student is investigating how homeless or rough-sleeping young people use their mobile phones on the streets.
Masters communication student Sophie Nussbaumer, who is being supervised by Dr Donald Matheson and Dr Yvonne Crichton-Hill, says the homeless young people use their phones much like others do to hang out with friends and access social media.
Although information and communication technologies, particularly cellphones are fast becoming an integral part of modern life, technology does little to help young ‘streeties’ out of the many difficulties they face in street life.
In 2013 the Christchurch City Mission’s 30-bed night shelter for men accommodated 738 men, with 28 percent of these new people. The average length of stay was 11 nights. The seven-bed women’s night shelter accommodated 182 women (63 percent were new), their stay averaging 9.8 nights.
Nussbaumer says the issue of homelessness is topical around New Zealand and also due to the fact that many Christchurch people have been displaced as a result of the earthquakes.
``I interviewed rough sleeping people between the ages of 16-24 who own a cellphone. I was introduced to these people by those who run the Help for the Homeless Christchurch Facebook page. I wanted to find out how they used their cellphones on the streets.
``Their cellphone use was not that dissimilar from the general public. Almost all of the rough sleeping youth participants had some type of smartphone and many had downloaded the latest apps such as Tango, Tinder and SnapChat. Gaming on the cellphone and selfies are another past-time of rough sleeping youth.
``Music is extremely important to them. Life on the streets can be extremely lonely, depressing and stressful. For these youth, music provides comfort and relief from the depressing reality of street life. One participant described that music kept him from committing suicide. Others said it helped with feelings of depression and despair at their circumstances.
``Many rough sleeping youth have very limited and exclusive contacts. They only maintain contact with a small circle of people. This is for a number of reasons, including fear and suspicion of authority, wanting to cast off gang ties or former friends with substance abuse issues, shame at street lifestyle and/or a severe breakdown in family relationships.
``Many said the cellphone did little to practically assist in street life. While many said it is useful for contact, it is not the be all and end all to surviving on the streets. Some used their phones to find out the whereabouts of a feed, or to check up on the safety of members of their street family, but ultimately cellphones are viewed as dispensable. Information is readily shared among fellow streeties by word of mouth, and if their cellphones were lost or stolen, they can easily obtain another one or rely on social media via the computers at the public library.’’
Nussbaumer says these findings suggest that technology is not overly important in shaping the lives of these youth. Perhaps the cellphone is a way of engaging and participating in youth culture, free from the stigma and perceptions that are sometimes associated with homelessness, she says.

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