This study explores mobile phone use among people experiencing homelessness in downtown Los Angeles. It explores usage patterns and connectivity challenges, and how these affect access to social services as well as opportunities for information seeking, skills building, and social capital formation. To characterize the unreliable conditions under which this population uses mobile phones, we introduce the concept of access instability to capture not simply the obstacles to technology access imposed by poverty but more broadly those stemming from a combination of poverty, housing insecurity, and discrimination. The study is primarily based on a survey among adults experiencing homelessness (or at risk of) conducted over a span of 5 months, complemented by findings from a participatory research intervention carried out in collaboration with a local advocacy organization. Among the key findings is that reliable access to electrical power represents a fundamental yet understudied barrier to mobile use among marginalized populations, including (but not limited to) those experiencing homelessness. Lacking a safe and reliable place to charge their devices, the unstably housed must activate coping strategies that limit digital engagement and constrain use. Overall, access instability disrupts the expectation of constant reachability that underpins modern economic and social relations. Ultimately, this narrows pathways out of homelessness by limiting the ability to gain or sustain employment, to connect with healthcare providers and other vital resources, and to maintain networks of personal support.
The Power Divide: Mobile Communication in Los Angeles’ Skid Row
Mobile Media & Communication