Everyone knows there's a big gap in worldwide between the have and the have nots in one area: internet access. A new study looked at that gap where you would expect to see it in an obvious way. They looked at computer and internet use in homeless populations in the Philadelphia area. The results are somewhat surprising.
Right now 58% of households have some kind of computer and 76% of these households have access to the internet. Of the homeless population they reported an average homeless time of 12 years. Of the 100 study participants, 47% reported computer use within the last 30 days. By far the main source of their computer use was free access at the public libraries in Philadelphia. University libraries, service organizations, churches and coffee shops rounded out the other sources where homeless were able to access the internet.
Users lauded the free public library services and discussed ways in which they manipulated the system for even more time on the computers than they were supposed to be allowed. Job searching made up the majority of what they used the internet for, followed by general internet surfing, word processing, social networking, and housing searches. They cited using the internet for "social connectedness" likely a good motivator for the social networking use. Their leisure use reflected what you might expect from a typical internet user: surfing the internet, reading the news, listening to music, shopping, books, movies and sports.
This might have been the first study to look at the homeless alone and their technology and computer use. What are the implications of this study? The homeless themselves suggested that cities and other agencies consider using the internet to disseminate information to homeless in their communities. I think it also emphasizes how important public libraries and computer and internet access there are to homeless populations or poor or transient populations in general. It also sets the bar for what information we want to pass on to these people and gives us perhaps another outlet at reaching them. Spreading health information and the possibility for social and community groups that could support these people having a stronger presence on the internet are other possibilities this study indicates might be a good push in the future.
Eyrich-Garg, K. (2011). Sheltered in cyberspace? Computer use among the unsheltered ‘street’ homeless Computers in Human Behavior, 27 (1), 296-303 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2010.08.007