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A Digital Lifeline: The Importance of Cell Phones to Homeless Youth

03/22/2015 05:38 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2015
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A homeless young woman who I have known for five years just called my cell to ask me for advice. She is being regularly harassed in the park where she has been sleeping for past several weeks. We talked on the phone for a half hour about what was happening and went over her options. I told her I wanted to get her in touch with a lawyer. Before I ended the call, I asked her if I could call her back on the number showing up on my phone and she said, "Yes this is my cell."

That's right, this young homeless woman has cell phone. And she's using it to reach out to me to try to get some answers about her legal rights. And yes, I promised to call her back once I had more information.

One of the most important resources homeless teens and young adults can acquire is a cell phone. Imagine for a moment that you are homeless. How would you get a job if an employer could not call you back? How is your social worker going to follow up with you about housing opportunities if they can't call you back? This is the reality that homeless youth face every day

I have been working with homeless teens and young adults since 2003 and a few years ago more and more youth started talking to me about how important telecommunication technology was to them. So I conducted a survey with about 200 youth and published the results in the " Journal of Urban Health ".

It turns out that 62 percent of homeless youth own a cell phone. When I talk with people about this study, they are often surprised by how many homeless youth have cell phones. I think this is because we still think of cell phones as a commodity of the rich. Sure the new iPhone is going to set you back a few hundred dollars, but there are a lot of cheap options out there. In my survey, I found that 30 percent of youth had been given their phone, 44 percent had paid for their phone by saving money from a job they held, and 9 percent bought their phones using money they had acquired pan handling on the streets.

Having a phone can be an opportunity for making strides toward a stable life. In my study I found that many of the youth who owned cell phones were using them to try to improve their situation. About 40 percent of the youth I surveyed said they were using their phone to try to get a job. About a quarter of the youth also told me that they were using their phones to keep up with a social worker that was helping them to get off the streets.

Still, not every homeless youth has a phone and they all struggle to get enough minutes and data. We need to put more cell phones in the hands of more homeless teens and young adults. We need to provide them with more minutes and data. Cell phones are a relatively cheap resource and they are a resource that these youth can leverage into jobs, housing and stable lives. If we want to help homeless youth to help themselves, we need to empower them to be connected to the world. And in this information rich day and age, that means cell phones.

Eric Rice, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Southern California's School of Social Work and its online master's degree program MSW@USC. An expert in high-risk adolescent behavior and social network theory, Rice works primarily on issues of HIV prevention for homeless youth and impoverished families affected by HIV/AIDS. He works with several community-based organizations that serve homeless youth, including My Friend's Place, Safe Place for Youth and The Division of Adolescent Medicine at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.