Smartphones Are Changing How Homeless People Survive

Middle-class pedestrians sometimes think an iPhone is a luxury for a poor person. In fact, that device can help them find resources, health care, and community.
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On a sweltering day several months ago, 35-year-old Terry Phillips got his first cell phone. He was sitting on the side of a freeway off-ramp in Sacramento with a cardboard sign, when a car pulled up and the driver held a brown paper bag out the window. Despite his stiff knees and unrelenting cough, Terry stood to receive the bag. Inside, he found several granola bars, a bottle of water, and—to his surprise—an old iPhone and a charger inside.

Having known Terry—a longtime resident of my hometown—for years, I knew he was no stranger to charitable goods and services, but I had no idea how profoundly that paper bag would change his life. He charged the phone using outlets in cafes and on the street, and within a few days he was sending and receiving calls and texts, setting alarms, taking photos, and even accessing the Internet.

Soon, Terry was connecting easily to Wi-Fi hotspots to reach the virtual world. He received Social Security digitally and began frequenting job-seeking apps and social media. He contacted shelters and resource centers to see what services were available. He phoned potential employers and checked bus schedules. He even received regular medical care from free mobile clinics that he found online.

Shown the ropes by a homeless companion, Terry promptly acclimated to the new technology, becoming an active participant in online forums. Created by and for other homeless people, these online platforms like the blog "Homeless Rob Has a Plan" and forums like SANE and able2know were home to countless tips for roughing it in the city. There, Terry and others passed tips about police whereabouts and heavily patrolled areas, told each other about pet-friendly shelters and free food offerings, and shared advice about experiences on the street.

In the months following Terry's first talks, texts, and tweets, he joined thousands of other homeless people, both near and far, who had used the Internet as a tool for survival.

Technology has enabled him to find places to sleep, to eat, to earn, and to socialize; in many ways, his survival now depends on it. Yet in other ways, his survival has been impeded by it.

In some pedestrians, for instance, Terry elicits skepticism; he is Chilean, and his dark skin and apparent poverty seem belied by the sense of wealth or indulgence that his iPhone can convey. Under freeways, on street corners, and in public parks, his authenticity as an indigent is often challenged. To these onlookers, he is too homeless to fit into society, but also not homeless enough to receive sympathy. After all, how could someone be unable to afford food, water, shelter, and clothing, yet still enjoy the luxury of a smartphone? Had Terry perhaps stolen the phone, or had he just made bad consumer choices that resulted in his poverty?

Yet to other people, Terry looks ordinary—just like many other homeless people. His quiet use of technology disturbs no one.

Which of the above reactions we choose may depend on our race, gender, class, and ability. But they also may depend on our age. Generation Z, for instance, having grown up in the era of technological advancement, might consider things like an iPhone a necessity, where their older counterparts might consider it something more like an expensive treat. The age group as a whole is technologically savvy and increasingly integrating tech into their daily lives. While generations past can cite themselves as examples of "survival without a smartphone," Generation Z cannot, and thus might be less likely to see Terry's smartphone as an unjustified extravagance.

When I asked him about all this, Terry said that his iPhone had become essential to his way of life. Without permanent housing or reliable access to other forms of media, Terry's phone gives him the opportunity to connect with others inside his community and beyond it, while offering him "job opportunities, housing prospects, and friends for a lifetime," as he tells me.

Terry's iPhone is a lifeline beyond a meal or a warm bed. It places the power to find work and social services in the palm of his hand: At the click of a button, he is able to communicate with friends and loved ones. Terry is connected as never before, and he says he now has "friends to see and a reason to wake up every morning." In this sense, his phone has offered him something charity frequently fails to: It has given him agency, opportunity, and community.

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Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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