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Homeless and connected: mobile phones and homelessness


16 July 2013

A study to be undertaken by the University of Sydney will provide valuable insights into the uses of mobile digital technology by homeless families with children and young people, two of the fastest-growing homeless groups in Australia.

Results from the study will feed into new communication policy and programs by mobile telecommunication providers, support groups and government providers.

The homeless population in Australia is currently estimated to be 105,237, up from 89,728 in 2006.

These are not the group typically represented, who sleep rough or live in improvised dwellings. They are more often women with children, Indigenous families and young people who flee their homes and communities to keep themselves and their children safe. They 'couch surf' andmove between refuges and other kinds of emergency and sub-standard accommodation.

Sixty percent of people experiencing homelessness in Australia are under 35, and 26 percent are families with children (ABS 2006, 2011).

"These groups of consumers have unique patterns of ownership and use of mobile devices," said lead researcher on the project Dr Justine Humphry, who is a Lecturer in Digital Cultures in the University's Department of Media and Communications.

"My research will ask how and in what contexts mobile phones and mobile internet services are currently being used by these groups. This will help to build evidence to develop better and more appropriate policies and advocate on their behalf."

Addressing such significant questions will uncover the communication needs of people who are vulnerable to social exclusion and isolation, she said.

"For some social groups, mobile communication does not simply complement, add to or replace existing communication services. For some, it may be their only form of communication and social connection. And now many government departments are communicating their services via apps and other digital channels."

The federal government recently released a statement that government agencies will use mobile technology to deliver services under a new Australian Public Service Mobile Roadmap.

Dr Humphry's project will begin in August and will survey between 50 and 100 homeless families and young people in New South Wales and Victoria while addressing issues of use and ownership, and going beyond the usual focus of the so-called 'digital divide' and the access gap.

The study is titled, 'Homeless and Connected: mobile phones and mobile internet in the lives of families and young people experiencing homelessness'. It has recently won a grant from the Australian Communication Consumer Action Network (ACCAN).

The research project will work closely with the national peak agency - Homelessness Australia - and several state-based peak agencies and service providers in NSW and Victoria.

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Media contact: Jacqueline Chowns 0434 605 018, Jacqueline.chowns@sydney.edu.au