Please enter a valid search term.

Breaking barriers - How broadband can help serve the unhoused U.S. population

Bowling Green, Ky. (May 23, 2024) - In late 2021, President Biden signed the Digital Equity Act into law – a $2.75 billion dollar investment to ensure that all Americans have the digital skills and technologies necessary to take advantage of everything the internet has to offer.

These programs focus particularly on underserved communities, which are called covered populations by the NTIA. Covered populations include aging individuals (65+), veterans, racial or ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities, individuals with language barriers, incarcerated individuals, Tribal communities, rural households, and low-income households (at or below 150% of the federal poverty threshold).  As states drafted plans for how to tackle the Digital Divide, these populations received particular attention and resources will be allocated to support these populations specifically.

Unfortunately, one demographic with ample need did not receive the covered population designation – unhoused people, those who lack a permanent space to live.

According to a recent study by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, roughly 653,000 Americans found themselves without housing on a given night in 2023. While each person’s experience is different, many find themselves without housing because they cannot afford to rent or buy, and without a permanent residence, it’s more difficult to amass the resources necessary to attain one.

The internet can be invaluable for unhoused people, as they can use it to find employment, access government services, connect with friends and family, and find available housing. However, without permanent housing, they cannot subscribe to home internet service and have to look for connectivity elsewhere.

Despite these barriers, few state digital equity plans paid any attention to this population. Of the 52 plans (including Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia), a third of them contain no mention of the words “unhoused” or “homeless” anywhere in the document. Some plans make no mention of this population in the text but highlight resources that they could utilize to access the internet.

Many others mention the population while discussing another covered population, like veterans, incarcerated individuals, or low-income households. Without careful consideration, analysis, and planning, unhoused people will continue to experience the Digital Divide while others begin to close the gap.

Istock 1192151300

That being said, some state digital equity plans did delve deeper into understanding this population. What can we learn about their digital habits, skills, and needs? What unique challenges do they face, and what actions and strategies are proposed to address them? This blog post will analyze this research and summarize some of its key findings.

To say that unhoused people struggle to access the internet is an understatement. Without a residence, unhoused individuals cannot subscribe to home internet service. That leaves mobile internet and public Wi-Fi as the predominant means for getting online. According to Texas’s Digital Opportunity Plan, 27% of unhoused individuals rely exclusively on smartphones to access the internet (compared to 7% of all respondents surveyed). That number is even higher in California; their Digital Equity Plan suggests that 43% of the population utilizes smartphones exclusively to go online.

However, many of these users lack a mobile internet plan and have to connect their phones to public Wi-Fi in order to access the internet. That can mean the difference between eating and starving, as this focus group participant quoted in Washington’s Digital Equity Plan highlights

“I sleep in a parking lot … and when the Wi-Fi goes off, I can’t use my phone. That’s usually how I know the soup kitchens that are open for the night.” (page 140)

Mobile internet can be prohibitively expensive for some unhoused people (especially those without employment). Among those surveyed in California, 68% said they did not have internet because it was too expensive; in Texas, nearly three in four (73%) said the same. Unhoused individuals can access government programs and services to get free or affordable mobile internet, but barriers remain.

In California, 21% of unhoused survey respondents had enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program, and 23% had enrolled in the Lifeline program. Unfortunately, federal program requirements can put these discounts out of reach for some unhoused individuals who could benefit the most – because they lack a home address and/or an e-mail address needed for registration and enrollment.

Istock 1423117425

Lacking a home address can have other ramifications for internet access, too, aside from program ineligibility. Without one, individuals in some states may not be able to get a government-issued identification card – which could bar them from accessing public services. A narrative quoted in Colorado’s Digital Access Plan demonstrates how this could impact connectivity

“An individual shared a story of a friend who is homeless, is not from Colorado, and does not have an ID to get a library card. He cannot access a computer at the library to get online and always has to find someone to help him.” (page 102)

For unhoused individuals who do subscribe to internet service, large numbers express that the internet does not meet their needs for different reasons. Some of these challenges relate to the service itself. For example, among unhoused people with internet surveyed for California’s plan, 43% described it as unreliable because of service interruptions and speed inconsistencies. However, another large subset of this population lacks the digital skills needed to navigate the internet and often cannot find help.

According to Colorado’s plan, 27% of unhoused individuals surveyed do not have technical support nearby that could help them use the internet safely. Those rates are even higher in California, where 34% of unhoused respondents said that there was nobody available to help them, and in Texas, where 40% of unhoused respondents indicated that there was nobody they could ask.

Despite the lack of Digital Navigators available to them, there is no dearth of interest in learning more digital skills. Surveys in both California's and Texas’s plans asked whether individuals would be interested in taking classes on computer and internet use. In both states, 54% of unhoused respondents said that they were interested, compared to 33% of all respondents in California and 28% in Texas.

State digital equity plans have different approaches for how to best help unhoused individuals access and use the internet. Some states advocate for more localized solutions. For example, Ohio’s Digital Opportunity Plan highlights a community center with a computer lab that is currently being built for homeless veterans in the southwestern part of the state.

In Texas, the plan advocates for providing more safe spaces for unhoused people to charge their devices. Other states propose increasing funding to provide internet connectivity and devices more directly. Hawaii’s Digital Equity Plan emphasizes the importance of investing in devices and affordable connectivity for the state’s most vulnerable residents, including unhoused people.

In California, the Department of Housing and Community Development has been tasked with providing free broadband service in publicly subsidized housing, and in Washington, their plan recommends establishing more locations with public Wi-Fi for unhoused individuals to use. Massachusetts took their recommendations a step further and called for reducing homelessness altogether, since the home is the default access point for broadband for many people.

While states may disagree about the best strategies going forward to help unhoused people get connected, two things are certain – this population needs help, and we need more data collection to fully understand and address their unique challenges nationwide.

About the Author: David Nunally is a Connected Nation Research Analyst. David is responsible for using qualitative and quantitative techniques to interpret survey data, in addition to collecting data from secondary sources to help support those findings. David works with internal and external stakeholders to help develop research and provide critical information in support of the Connected Nation mission.