Post 5 By Alice Stollery
Stigma and stereotyping have been recurring issues in secondary sources and the mainstream media throughout my research into homelessness. The societal shift towards technological dependence has also raised a number of concerns for those on the streets, as we create a digital divide, further marginalising the homeless.
With these positions in mind, I recently interviewed a university student to understand the relevance of these issues among the 18-24 year old age bracket. The primary objective of the interview process was to understand their attitudes towards the homeless and their circumstances, and to identify where stereotypes may have influenced their views and behaviours. By conducting an interview and establishing a design probe, I also hoped to ascertain the interviewees dependence on technology, such as their mobile phone and the internet, to ultimately identify areas where access to technology is a necessity for this age group. This would hopefully, in turn, allow me to understand where technology is failing the homeless, and in particular, homeless youth. My interview questions were limited and the interview was conducted more as a conversation to ensure the interviewee was relaxed and open in their response to the questions.
Throughout the interview process, I found that stereotypes were present in both their definition of homelessness as well as the perceived causes of homelessness. Interestingly, the invisible homeless were not accounted for within this person’s definition.
“Someone who doesn’t have a physical home to go to and a physical space to keep personal belongings. Those that are detached from society.”
This simplified definition of homelessness exposed the shallow understanding many people have of the issue. The invisible homeless do not enter our thoughts and we do not consider that the homeless may well be active members of society, working or studying full time, yet living out of the boot of their car or sleeping on a friends couch. By describing homelessness in this way, we almost detach ourselves from it, thinking that homelessness affects those that make poor life choices or who come from difficult backgrounds.
This simplified definition of homelessness may also be due to my lack of interview skills and the time frame in which the interview was conducted. Perhaps with more time and more probing, the interviewee could have established a more comprehensive understanding and definition of the issue. To improve for next time, I would perhaps break down this question into multiple questions as it is difficult to provide a complete overview of a complex issue in a single answer.
Feelings towards helping the homeless
The interview was also used to ascertain the interviewee’s feelings towards helping those in need. Seeing the numbers of people, myself included, walk past the homeless each day, I have always thought that a possible solution could sit within the actions of the passers by. I wanted to know the reasons why people chose not to help them, whether it was a case of not knowing how or whether there was less desire to help them due to a lack of empathy as a result of desensitisation or stigma. The interviewee stated that she was aware of the homeless, yet did not take much notice of them. Confirming the latter of my hypothesis. When walking past them, she realised that she pays more attention to their belongings and the items they keep, rather than focusing on them or their situation. She did not have any particular feelings when seeing them and due to this lack of empathy for them, felt that she had been desensitised to the issue.
Perceived causes of homelessness
When asked, the interviewee attributed the causes of homelessness to unfortunate circumstances and financial difficulty such as keeping up with rent or mortgage payments. She stated that she was aware that a number of homeless people had jobs and in this situation contributed possible causes to reckless or irresponsible spending and differing priorities from those not affected by homelessness. When asked if she had ever considered helping the homeless and if so what barriers she faced or what stopped her from doing so, she stated that not knowing how to help them played a large role in her reasons for choosing not to help them.
“When I walk past, of course I consider helping them but I don’t now how to help without contributing to the problem. Not knowing their situation and how to help them is the biggest barrier.”
This implies that people would be more willing to help or donate to the homeless if they were aware of the circumstances that lead them to be homeless. When asked about the challenges the homeless face, the interviewee listed social stigma and overcoming societies perception of them. I was intrigued by the fact that the interviewee was aware enough of this stigma to list it as a challenge yet not enough to challenge her own views of them.
The role of technology
Moving onto the role technology plays in her life, I asked the interviewee what daily challenges she might face if she did not have access to a mobile or internet technology. These included, waking up on time for commitments as she uses the alarm on her phone, emergencies, lack of ability to contact and stay in touch with friends and family and limited or no access to her uni work or online resources needed to complete her degree.
As the answer to this question did not give a comprehensive insight into the necessity of technology within her life, I asked the interviewee to complete a design probe over the course of the following week.
She was asked to document the role her mobile or internet plays in her life, including her fundamental and vital uses of technology during that period. Whenever she relied on her mobile or internet for work, socialising or emergencies,to name a few, she was asked to take note and record them. In designing this task, I hoped to identify situations when she would not have been able to complete the task without mobile or Internet technology.
The design probe results have been visualised above. They depict that for the 18-24 age bracket, mobile and internet technology are primarily used to maintain relationships with friends and family as throughout the week the interviewee spent 4.5 hours on Instagram, 3 hours on Facebook, 1.5 hours checking her email, 15 minutes looking up transport timetables and 1 hour making important phone calls. I was quite surprised by these results as they differed from my expectations. I would have placed more importance on calls or transport information rather than instagram, however this may be due to the particular week in which the design probe was completed.
These results are a good introduction to the issue, however, I would need to interview a number of participants in order to gauge an accurate indication of the primary uses of technology within this age bracket. As the interviewee also pointed out, this just so happened to be a week where she did not need to make any emergency phone calls, and other important phone calls were kept to a minimum.
Five Key Insights
- The role of technology in the lives of youth may differ considerably from older age brackets, with significance placed on maintaining relationships and social connections through social media. Youth also do not make a lot of phone calls, which places more importance on online interaction.
- I found that stereotypes were present in both the interviewees definition of homelessness as well as the perceived causes of homelessness as the invisible homeless were not considered within their definition of the issue.
- There is evidence of a shallow understanding of the complexity of homelessness as well as an indifference towards those suffering form homelessness. This issue is not at the forefront of peoples minds and due to desensitisation and stigma surrounding their circumstances, people may not have empathy towards those suffering from homelessness.
- People are less likely to help the homeless without knowing their background or situation. The causes of homelessness from a youths perspective include unfortunate circumstances and financial difficulty such as keeping up with rent or mortgage payments, reckless or irresponsible spending and differing priorities from those not affected by homelessness.
- Social stigma and overcoming societies perception of them is considered a barrier for the homeless to overcome.