No internet, No Lifeline

The homeless now find internet access essential to survival

Karloz Daugherty makes his living persuading people to donate money on the iPad he holds in his hands. The 23-year-old delivers his pitch with an energetic air, periodically flashing a slightly crooked smile as he explains Amnesty International's commitment to fighting for human rights across the globe.

When his eight-hour shift as a canvasser is over, he clocks out using his cell phone and catches the bus back to Santa Monica. But he doesn't return to a house, an apartment or even a friend's couch. He sleeps on the beach, where he said he's laid his head every night since he arrived in California earlier this year.

"I honestly think I live through my phone."

-Karloz Daugherty

Daugherty is among the tens of thousands in Los Angeles experiencing homelessness. The 2018 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count reports that there are nearly 53,000 homeless individuals in the county. More than 70 percent of them are unsheltered, meaning they do not have a safe, indoor space to sleep.

Even with a steady paycheck, Daugherty said he finds the cost of living in LA too high. He lives on the beach. He showers and does his laundry at the Ocean Park Community Center a dozen or so blocks away.

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He said he uses his Google Pixel 2 daily to catch up on news and text his sister, who lives in Alaska with the rest of his family. Google helps him find places to eat, like the restaurant-style homeless kitchen in Venice called Bread & Roses.

"I honestly think I live through my phone," he said.

A 2017 University of Southern California study suggests that rates of cell phone ownership and internet use among the homeless match that of the general population. Lead researcher and USC Research Professor Harmony Rhoades said reliable, affordable access to the internet is a necessity for everyone in today's society-especially for those who are homeless.

"Everyone is deserving of this sort of technology access, even more so once you've experienced trauma and vulnerability like this. It's not a luxury to have a cell phone in our society," Rhoades said. "Particularly, when you are in the midst of something like homelessness where one phone call might be the one that sends you back home, the one that gets you a place to stay that night, the one that gets you the lead for a job. It really is a lifeline for this population and not something that we should think about as optional."

Karloz Daugherty, homeless Amnesty International canvasser

One person's lifeline

The internet is Daugherty's lifeline. He said his cell phone data plan allows him to maintain contact with his employers, helps him navigate LA and keeps him connected to the world.

Daugherty pays for his $90 unlimited data plan with the $1,500 he earns monthly as a canvasser. It's a job that requires technology nearly as much as his personal life. Daugherty attests that the iPad he uses is essential to signing people up faster than the old clipboard and pen method.

"I wouldn't have a job if I didn't have the internet or technology," he said.

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For his particular job, having access to the internet marks the difference between a paycheck and a pink slip. Amnesty canvassers use a smartphone messaging app called GoupMe to receive location assignments and chat with each other while on the job. All working hours must be logged on a payroll app called Paycom.

Daugherty recalls an older fellow employee whose flip phone put him at a serious disadvantage because he couldn't use these apps.

"It was too hard to get ahold of him. It was too hard to [electronically] add him to group tasks and stuff like that. That definitely affected his life," Daugherty said.

Daugherty secured his job with Amnesty International four days after arriving in LA. He used Indeed, a world-wide employment search engine, to submit his resume online.

From luxury to necessity

Daugherty said he was 14 the last time he used a paper application to apply for a job.

At the Robert Louis Stevenson Library in Boyle Heights, Senior Librarian Lupie Leyva said homeless individuals use computers daily to look for jobs online and work on digital resumes.

In her experience, it seems the majority of jobs nowadays require an online application. Leyva has helped a number of homeless individuals navigate job listings, resource websites and social media platforms online. In today's society, Leyva said she's convinced internet access is not merely a privilege or a luxury. It's a necessity.

"The internet, that's my number one resource even before I was homeless."

-Robert Davies, salesman and formerly homeless

"Maybe if you live out in the forest, you don't need technology. But if you're going to be surviving in a modern city, you do need technology," she said. "That's how you access housing. That's how you access, oftentimes, banking. That's how you access jobs."

Felice Kaplan is unemployed and critically at risk for becoming homeless. She said the internet helps her quickly apply for a multitude of jobs, certainly more than she would be able to apply for if she were searching for work offline.

"You can go on there for hours and literally fill out 50 different applications, ten jobs an hour for five hours," she said. "In real life, if you didn't have the computer, maybe you'd only find one or two."

Robert Davies, who was homeless and now works as a sales representative, said the internet is essential to forging relationships with potential employers.

"If you don't have a computer, internet, [...] access to a resume and you may not have a cell phone, how do they follow up with you?" Davies said. "Technology to me, the use of the internet, that's my number one resource even before I was homeless."

"It's not a luxury to have a cell phone in our society," said USC Research Professor Harmony Rhoades.

Davies and Daugherty are two of the many who have maintained access to the internet while homeless, the USC technology study shows.

The technology study surveyed 421 homeless adults moving into permanent supportive housing in the Los Angeles or Long Beach areas. The adults were 54 years old on average and mostly black males. Among this homeless sample, 94 percent had owned a cell phone in the three months prior to the study.

Rhoades said those moving into housing from homelessness are some of the most vulnerable. These individuals, she said, often suffer from serious physical and mental health conditions and have been experiencing chronic homelessness.

"From my perspective, if this sample is using technology at such high rates, likely the larger sample of people experiencing homelessness is as well," Rhoades said.

Half of the homeless participants in the study used their cell phones to access the internet. Internet usage among the homeless sample was higher than the general population of the same age demographic. Rhoades contributes these high rates to necessity.

"The context of homelessness is going to necessitate something to keep you connected with the broader world in a way that might not be true of older adults who are housed," she said.

More than 50 percent of the study's participants owned smartphones. Thomas Byrne, a Professor of Social Welfare Policy at Boston University, said smartphones particularly open the door for homeless individuals to gain upward mobility.

"You can do job applications off smartphones [...] and you can provide information to people about services and so forth," he said. "It's a tool we have to think about using."

Daugherty says his job depends on his smartphone.

Although internet usage was high, safe and reliable access to free internet proved to be a struggle for the sampled homeless. Cost of using non-Wi-Fi internet and lack of free Wi-Fi in shelters keeps the homeless disconnected, Rhoades said.

With his data plan, Daugherty doesn't need to access free Wi-Fi, but he knows other homeless individuals who do. He said he notices a large concentration of homeless people spending time around the Starbucks where he charges his phone every morning.

Accessing charging outlets in restaurants and cafes, Daugherty said, can be a challenge for many homeless individuals. He said he's seen places of business deliberately prevent those who appear to be homeless from charging their phones inside.

"If somebody with a million dollars was out and they needed to charge their phone for a business thing, where would they go? They would go to Starbucks. So, why can't [a homeless person] who needs their phone to find a job or call their family to let them know they're all right have that same privilege?" he said.

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Staying connected

Beyond work, Daugherty's cell phone keeps him up-to-date on current events. He likes to be well-informed, and said he didn't know what was going on in the world until he started reading via the internet.

His phone also connects him with his family, who reside out of state. He calls his mother at least once a week.

Rhoades identifies the ability to connect to family, friends and social support workers as a priority among the homeless population.

"It's very easy to make those arguments thinking about looking for employment, looking for benefits, but also just the importance of connecting to social support. To family members, to friends, to all of those things the rest of us, I think, take for granted that we do with technology." she said. "Even if it just seems like they're playing or sending text messages to family, I think having a cell phone and internet access is really important."

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The purpose of the study was to understand how mobile devices keep the homeless connected, from caseworkers to facebook friends.

"Actually, what just looks like screwing around on Facebook is probably really helpful for them because it's helping them maintain ties outside of the street context," Rhoades said.

Daugherty maintains a robust social media presence with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. Whether he's tweeting his thoughts on human rights or uploading his resume to job sites like Indeed, Daugherty challenges the stigma of a person experiencing homelessness.

He doesn't call himself homeless, but said he likes to think of himself as a vagabond instead.

"Because 'vagabond' isn't a word everybody knows, they'll ask me what [it] is and I get to describe it my way instead of saying, 'Oh, I'm homeless,'" he said. "Then a stigma just jumps into their head."

Daugherty describes a vagabond as someone who's wandering and simply doesn't have a steady place to sleep at night.

The tweet pinned to the top of his profile page reads: