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Homeless Teens -- And Their Cellphones -- At San Francisco's Larkin Street Youth Services

For homeless teenagers, cellphones are not a luxury item -- they're a necessity.

Asa Mathat

The teens whom Eva Kersey oversees seem tethered to their cellphones, obsessed with Facebooking and Snapchatting. When they want to earn a little extra money, they take on TaskRabbit projects. When they need to do a school paper, they write the whole thing on their phones.

The only surprising thing about this otherwise typical-sounding group: These teens are homeless. Kersey works at Larkin Street Youth Services, a shelter in San Francisco’s dodgy Tenderloin district, and one of the first things teens do when they get there is look for a place to plug in their phones.

Onstage today at the Code/Mobile conference in Half Moon Bay, Calif., Eva Kersey gave an impassioned argument encouraging technologists to build tools for homeless youth. More than 60 percent of homeless teens have cellphones, a 2011 study found. That number has no doubt grown since then. Yet many people still struggle to grok the basic concept that kids who don’t have a home still have smartphones. For homeless teenagers, cellphones are not a luxury item — they’re a necessity.

Kersey, who studied medical anthropology and public health at Whitman College in Washington, came back to the Bay Area (she grew up in Walnut Creek) and started working on the Larkin Street outreach team in 2009, running a drop-in center for kids in the city’s famous runaway-magnet neighborhood, the Haight-Ashbury, before joining the HIV prevention team.

Tech industry volunteers at Larkin Street often assume that their workplace skills won’t be useful.

“We have a lot of people interested in volunteering, a lot of whom come from the tech industry,” Kersey said. “The volunteers want to give back, but in this kind of abstract way, just give back generally: ‘I’m going to do this thing that’s completely unrelated to my job.'”

In reality, it’s their specific technical skills — building out shelter websites and creating apps for homeless kids to get in touch with services — Kersey and her teens could really use: “I hope that people walk away feeling more empowered to build tools for homeless kids. That there are helpful things that can be done using mobile technology and apps.”

Eva Kersey’s Code/Mobile speech in video and text, below:

I’m going to start with an introduction; I’d like you to meet Aleah. Aleah woke up this morning at around 6:30 am, waited for her roommate to get out of the shower, and then began getting ready for her day.

By 8 am she’d had breakfast and was out the door. She got on her phone, looked up when the next bus would arrive to take her to her writing class at San Francisco City College, and walked to the bus stop. After class she stopped at a café with free Wi-Fi to spend some time on Craigslist looking for a job; she didn’t want to use too much data.

Aleah’s been looking for a job for a few months. She’s had a few interviews, but nothing has worked out yet. In the meantime, odd jobs that she finds on Task Rabbit and similar apps help her earn a bit of cash. She uses her phone to find those jobs, and then to figure out how to get to them.

Sometimes while Aleah’s riding the bus she’ll email a friend or play a game, but usually she just listens to music. As she told me, it keeps her from getting grumpy. So, it’s about 5:00 right now, and the afternoon’s wearing on. Aleah’s probably on her way home. Once there she’ll use her phone to log in to the online part of her writing class, participate in some discussion, and work on the week’s assignments.

So all of this probably sounds pretty normal: A young person using their phone to navigate the world. The unusual thing is: Aleah’s homeless. She’s 21 and lives in a shelter in the Tenderloin, one of San Francisco’s rougher neighborhoods. Originally from the Midwest, Aleah was kicked out of her parents’ house for being a lesbian, when she was a senior in high school.

Seeking community, Aleah moved to San Francisco where she has spent the last four years trying to work and go to school, sometimes crashing with friends, sometimes sleeping outside, and sometimes living at the shelter. Now when she waits for her roommate to get out of the shower, she’s waiting for one of the 40 people she lives with to get out of one of only a few showers in the building.

She’s out the door by 8 because she has to be. Even though she’s unemployed and only has one class per day she doesn’t come back until early evening because she can’t. Aleah does all of her job searching and schoolwork on her phone because, like many low-income Americans, that’s the only computer she has.

We may not be used to thinking of homeless people having and using smartphones like this, but Aleah is actually pretty typical of the three million to 3.5 million homeless youth in America today.

My name is Eva Kersey. I work at an organization in San Francisco that provides housing, education, employment, and health services to about 3,500 homeless youth per year.

Studies show that over 60 percent of homeless youth have cellphones. When I’m talking to clients, and I change the question from “do you own a cellphone” to “have you owned a cellphone in the last year?” that jumps up to about 80 percent. So if we have up to five million homeless youth in the country, as many as four million of them have cellphones. And most of those with phones report owning smartphones.

They use their phones for the same things the rest of us do: To check Facebook, play games, cruise Grindr, write emails, call Mom, watch porn, browse Instagram. The real difference lies in the fact that, for homeless people and many other low-income folks, their cellphone is their only computer. So they use it for absolutely everything else. It is how they manage their education, finances, work lives, family relationships, friendships, and healthcare needs.

In this context, a cellphone ceases to be the luxury item we normally consider it to be, and becomes an absolute necessity. For someone living on the streets, it keeps them safe. It’s their lifeline to their friends, family, and social safety net. It’s a tool and a source of hope. For Aleah, it’s a big part of what’s going to pull her off the streets and out of poverty.

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention Aleah or other homeless youth using their phones for anything related to their being homeless or poor. That’s because there aren’t many tools out there designed specifically for people like the youth I work with. I think this void exists in large part because we think of cellphones as luxury items. We would never expect someone with an iPhone to struggle to find their next meal or a place to sleep, but they do.

If we can stop thinking of cellphones as indicators of wealth, if we remind ourselves that there are many people here in the United States whose only access to a computer is their cellphone, entrepreneurs and programmers like yourselves can be more empowered to develop tools for them.

I know there are lots of people and companies out there who want to use their financial and technical resources to do good. I have good news: You don’t have to provide free housing or food to make a difference. There’s this really big market of homeless young people out there — four million — who have phones, but aren’t getting everything out of them that they need.

Mobile technology can help people get the education, income, and stability they need to get out of homelessness. I’ve heard some really great ideas from the youth I work with. One shelter resident pointed out that an app that helps people budget their SNAP (or FoodStamp) funds would be really helpful.

A young activist wishes he were able to upload streaming video live, so that police brutality could be documented and shared in real time — before a phone gets confiscated. In remote areas, free meals and shelters aren’t usually available; how can we use mobile technology to get homeless people in those places something to eat and somewhere to sleep?

In addition to these ideas, I have heard demand for one service repeated over and over again: An easy-to-use website or app that will help homeless people find the services they need quickly. An app like this would succinctly answer the question, “Where is the nearest drop-in center,” without requiring the user to wade through listings for food pantries and shelters first.

Interestingly, a pretty good version of this already exists, but no client I have talked to has ever heard of it. Right now, it’s a tool used mostly by people like me: Counselors, case managers, and other service providers. A client has to come find me so I can get on my computer, visit the website, and refer them to the organization that will help them.

Which brings me to my final point: These tools can and should be made for and marketed directly to the people they are meant to help. There is no requirement to go through government agencies and nonprofits.

In the youth services industry, homeless young people are often labeled “hard to reach.” I think this is a lie we tell ourselves, a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have a hard time reaching them because we aren’t looking in the right places. We’re going out into the streets on foot, going to schools, the foster care system, and the juvenile justice system, and asking the youth to come to us. Why not meet them where they are — on their cellphones?

The thing is, nonprofits have neither the capacity nor the expertise to build mobile apps and devices for our clients. That’s where you all come in. Community-based and governmental organizations can be great partners, providing expert information about homeless folks, their needs, and advising about cultural competency. However, when it comes to getting a product to a homeless person, you don’t need us.

‘Cause I’ve gotta tell ya, the people who work at these community organizations are not necessarily the most tech-savvy bunch, and the nonprofits don’t all have policies or infrastructure that support robust use of mobile technology in the workplace.

Where I work, only a handful of staff have cellphones they are allowed to use to communicate with clients. Just the other day, the nurse at our clinic was trying to get in touch with a client to confirm an important appointment for later in the day. She called and emailed him and got no response. It took 20 minutes to find the client’s case manager, who texted the client and got a response within minutes.

Mobile technology works to reach our clients; organizations just aren’t ready to use it. If we rely on service providers to bring new mobile tools to homeless youth, they may never get there. The youth are ready; go straight to them. Get their input as you develop a product. Advertise in public — on buses and billboards in strategic neighborhoods. Put up a mural. Post fliers on Haight Street.

So if you’re interested in harnessing mobile technology to make a difference, think about those millions of homeless youth in America. They have smartphones, and they are using them for just about everything. If Aleah’s phone can help her with school, work, and not being grumpy, I bet it could help her get out of homelessness, as well.

Thank you.

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