A woman uses a cell phone on downtown Los Angeles' Skid Row, March 6, 2013, photo  by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

commentary

(The RAND Blog)

Access to Mobile Technology Could Help to Alleviate LA's Homelessness Crisis

A woman uses a cell phone on downtown Los Angeles' Skid Row, March 6, 2013

Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

by Sarah B. Hunter, Rajeev Ramchand, Benjamin Henwood

September 16, 2020

Mobile technology has become ubiquitous to 21st-century living, in terms of how we receive and exchange information, for both social and economic interactions. Many of us start our day by unplugging our cell phone from its charger and checking personal messages, as well as national and local news. This has become especially critical during the pandemic, when COVID-19 awareness and family welfare are top of mind.

But suppose you had no place to plug in at night and wake each day needing to find a way to charge your phone? Those experiencing homelessness rely on cell phones the way everyone else does—to stay in touch with family and friends and connected to the world; but their phones are also needed to find food and shelter, access health care and social services, and to navigate public transportation options. Research shows the vast majority of people experiencing homelessness have cell phones, which can often serve as lifelines—or at least they could until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

For the past year, through a collaboration between RAND and the USC School of Social Work, we have followed 25 veterans experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles to better understand why they are living on the streets. When COVID-19 hit and people were ordered to shelter in place, many of the veterans in our study were still left on emptied streets. No longer were they able access the myriad options in public settings that they relied on to charge their phones, such as libraries, and commercial establishments—like cafes and fast food restaurants.

The vast majority of people experiencing homelessness have cell phones, which can often serve as lifelines—or at least they could until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

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While some homeless social service providers offer cell phone charging services, the standard procedure is for a person to drop off their phone by mid-morning and reclaim it several hours later, leaving that individual without access for several hours during the workday—times when it may be critical to reach health, housing, and other social service providers. While there is an underground economy for mobile device charging, the going rate is $2 per charge; an exorbitant sum; fully charging a phone in a home every night for an entire year costs approximately $1.

It's time to once again reconsider what it means to provide universal phone service, which has been an established public policy since the 1930s. During the Reagan era, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established the Universal Service Fund to provide subsidies for basic telephone service to those in need by imposing an extra tax on phone bills. This was later expanded to provide free cell phones and service to those in need through a program commonly called “Obama phones.” But having a cell phone is only useful if it can be reliably charged, something homelessness service providers have known for years, and that has been made even more apparent by the disruption of charging options from the pandemic. As we witnessed in our study, outreach workers who assist with access to services face obstacles when they have to rely on a verbal agreement to meet up in person days later on the same street corner to follow up; what takes days or weeks could take hours if people experiencing homelessness had access not only to phones but also to outlets to charge those phones.

Access to mobile technology could assist in enabling access to important services like health care and employment, and personal or family networks.

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While access to mobile technology may not solve homelessness, it could assist in enabling access to important services like health care and employment, and personal or family networks. Moreover, mobile connectivity helps for those seeking housing, meals, public transit, and legal information and advice. It also helps improve social support that can lead to improvements in physical and mental health. In addition, the pandemic has shifted many services from in-person care to teleservices, requiring a phone or better yet, video connection. Simply providing the same supports that many of us take for granted could in fact help to increase the long-term well-being of people experiencing homelessness.

So how do we make it easier for people experiencing homelessness to stay connected? Many municipalities support Wi-Fi access zones that allow free connecting to the internet. Why is this important? Since the pandemic, many state and federal government offices are closed. The ability to complete online forms is necessary to obtain identification cards, unemployment, Social Security, and other sorts of benefits. But what about charging? New York City has addressed the issue with “LinkNYC,” the first of its kind communication network. It replaced pay phones across its five boroughs with new structures called Links. Each Link provides fast, free public Wi-Fi, phone calls, device-charging, and a tablet for access to city services, maps, and directions. In Los Angeles, while some retailers have installed Chargeitspot™, a commercial product that provides free, on-site charging, it is not widespread, and many retailers are no longer open due to the pandemic.

Exploring opportunities that provide these kinds of technological supports to our most vulnerable could result in better service access and ultimately, better quality of life and outcomes. Private/public sector partnerships have worked in other municipalities to address this issue. Why not in Los Angeles?


Sarah B. Hunter is a senior behavioral scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Rajeev Ramchand is a senior behavioral scientist at RAND. Benjamin F. Henwood is associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California.

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.