BLOG Considering homeless people’s use of technology within the context of digitised advice and benefit systems

Drawing on her doctoral research, winner of the 2016 HSA Valeria Karn Prize Jennifer Harris (University of Bristol) considers the impact of digitised advice and benefit systems on people experiencing homelessness.

Digital technologies are playing an increasingly important role within the provision of advice and welfare benefits. Due to inequalities in ICT access, skills and abilities, the shift to “digital-by-default” services may seriously disadvantage homeless and other vulnerable people. However, homeless people cannot be considered to be necessarily “digitally excluded”. The diversity in homeless people’s experiences and circumstances connects to a wide range of alternate uses and opinions of technologies.

Advice plays a key role in helping homeless people access their rights to housing and other resources. As brought out by Elizabeth O’Hara from Shelter, legislative reforms and funding allocations are causing face-to-face advice to increasingly be phased out in favour of telephone and online services.

A shift towards digital channels can also be noted within recent welfare state reforms and the introduction of Universal Credit, which requires all claims to be applied for and managed online. Since 2014, Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants can also be required to complete their job searches via the website Universal Jobmatch, or face the risk of sanctions. These reforms mark a significant shift in the way in which advice and benefits are delivered in the UK.

The digitisation of advice and welfare benefit services has raised concerns: homelessness charities have argued that the “digital-by-default” element of Universal Credit could severely exclude those without the needed computer access and ICT skills.

It is often assumed that homeless people are digitally excluded and therefore likely to be disadvantaged in this increasingly digitised world – and there may be an element of truth to this. Researchers at Sheffield Hallam University found that ICT barriers may be contributing to a disproportionate number of homeless people being sanctioned.

On the other hand, popular narratives on digital exclusion are all too often based on stereotypical assumptions of how people use (or don’t use) technology. Recent research by Lemos&Crane shows that – contrary to popular opinion – many homeless people in the UK do own mobile phones, as well as regularly use the Internet. In light of these findings, if homeless people are simply placed into a generic category of “the digitally excluded”, it may very well mask their diverse and complex ways of owning and using technology.

Interviews that were conducted in 2014 with single homeless people and support staff in a city in the South of England, suggest that homeless people’s use of technology to access advice and information varies across certain key areas:

One key factor within the experiences of homeless people when claiming benefits online, is the type of device that they have access to. Compared to the general population, homeless people are more likely use smartphones than laptops to access the Internet. Having to complete job searches and job applications via a smartphone is a frustrating and time-consuming process. Not to mention other barriers that the homeless people may have to face, such as a lack of places to charge phones, and the short battery lifespan of smartphones.

Generational factors are another key issue within homeless people’s use of technology. The interviews suggest that due to age-related differences in ICT skills, the shift to mandatory online job searches may have a particularly negative impact on the older generation:

‘It’s become a very scary world. All your life you’re speaking one language and then suddenly there’s a new language.’ (Homeless male, aged 54-65).

Although the young homeless interviewees (aged 18-24) were avid smartphone and Internet users, many still struggled to make sense of the Universal Jobmatch website; showing that digital proficiency among young people cannot simply be assumed.

The actual reason for using the Internet (whether for advice, or for information purposes) is another factor influencing homeless people’s use and opinions of the Internet. Younger homeless people in particular seemed to use and value the Internet for locating information on what housing support is available. However, when people faced an urgent housing crisis, online advice was considered to be of little use.

In light of the sheer complexity of the experiences of many homeless people, not to speak of the vast complexity of the homelessness support system they have to deal with, the need for face-to-face advice is paramount so as to ensure that homeless people receive timely and appropriate support.

Individual skills, abilities and support needs were also seen to affect homeless people’s use and opinions of technology for advice and benefit purposes.

Some of the participants – in particular those who were most likely to have grown up using technology – felt confident navigating the Universal Jobmatch website. Some even preferred to complete their claims online (rather than to visit the Jobcentre Plus office). On the other hand, those with limited ICT skills, mental health problems, and/or English language or literacy issues, were simply unable to manage a benefit claim online without high levels of support. This in turn places significant pressure on homelessness charities, which are often already struggling to meet rising levels of demand.

The diversity within homeless people’s circumstances needs and experiences are linked to a wide range of uses and opinions technology. These many variables call for alternative options in the development of digital services, which cater to users with varying abilities, circumstances, needs, and preferences.