Nova Scotia

Cellphones can provide lifeline to homeless people

Homeless shelters and community groups in Nova Scotia say they're seeing an increase in homeless people using cellphones and accessing the internet.

Access to communication and internet helps people move forward in their lives, says Dal professor

Jesse Vincent, who is homeless, wants get a cellphone to replace his old one but he doesn't have the money. (David Burke/CBC)

Homeless shelters and community groups in Nova Scotia say they're seeing an increase in homeless people using cellphones and accessing the internet.

"I see it amongst all homeless populations for the most part," said Dalhousie University professor Jeff Karabanow who studies homelessness and is an organizer at the Out of the Cold emergency winter shelter in Halifax..

"They use that contact so that they can kind of move forward in their lives. If it's connecting with a worker, looking for employment, looking for housing, they're using that technology," he said.

"I'm amazed at Out of the Cold Shelter, a lot of them come in and say, 'Hey, is it okay if we recharged our phones?'"

Contact with family, friends missing

Jesse Vincent has been on the street for several years and is currently staying at the Metro Turning Point homeless shelter. While food and shelter are foremost on the Halifax man's mind these days, a close third is getting access to a cellphone.

Jesse Vincent says he'd like to have a cellphone to keep in touch with family and friends. (David Burke/CBC)

Vincent had a cellphone until two months ago. He used his phone to line up work, stay connected and access the internet. These days he uses the public library's computers to get online.

"A legitimate phone would be fantastic," said Vincent. "In case I had to work or talk to my family or friends ... or, you know, if I ever have to call emergency services."  

Officials with Phoenix Youth Programs in Halifax and Open Arms, a shelter in Kentville, N.S., have also noticed a steady increase in the number of homeless people who respond to their Facebook posts and other information they put online.

Groups accept donations of used phones

Open Arms said it first started to notice homeless people coming online around three to five years ago.

Community groups, such as Open Arms and Souls Harbour Rescue Mission in Halifax, accept donations of old cellphones to give to clients.

Karabanow believes many people on the street use previously owned cellphones or were able to get a basic phone on a pay-as-you-go plan. 

Free Wi-Fi allows homeless people to access the internet on their phones rather than paying for data. (Keith Bedford/Reuters)

Some people on the streets only use their phone when they're able to get free Wi-Fi in public places or at restaurants, so they don't have to pay to access a cellular network.  

Being able to get into the digital world is a good thing, said Karabanow.  

"This is a population that feels deeply marginalized. Social media is one of those frameworks [that] can actually allow them to feel a bit human, to allow them to feel part of civil society."       

It also gives homeless people an escape from their day-to-day struggles, he said. 

Phones provide safety net

Those online connections can also form a safety net for the homeless and other at-risk groups, said the president of the Nova Scotia Native Women's Association. 

The organization uses social media to reach out and stay in touch with women who have high-risk lifestyles, including women who are homeless, in the sex trade, or addicted to drugs. 

"It's really hard to know if they're OK in the world," said Cheryl Maloney. "Social media provides a way for the girls to check in and for us to know and their families to know that they're safe and they're still OK."

Cheryl Maloney is the president of the Nova Scotia Native Women's Association. (CBC)

The native women's association keeps in contact with about 30 women through social media. It has set up a closed Facebook group where women can check in with each other and make announcements.

"They feel alone. I think the connections with social media, the connections with their family, I think it's keeping them closer and safer," said Maloney.  

That's good news for people like Jesse Vincent, who once again wants to own a cellphone. But he's waiting until he can get out of debt before he gets a new one.

"With due time, I must find a way, you know, to get a phone somehow. I just got to have hope."