Mobile technology has become ubiquitous to 21st Century living, in terms of how we receive and exchange information, for both social and economic interactions. Many of us start our day by unplugging our cell phone from its charger and checking personal messages, as well as national and local news. This has become especially critical during the pandemic, when COVID-19 awareness and family welfare are top of mind.

But suppose you had no place to plug in at night and wake each day needing to find a way to charge your phone? Those experiencing homelessness rely on cell phones the way everyone else does—to stay in touch with family and friends and connected to the world; but their phones are also needed to find food and shelter, access health care and social services, and to navigate public transportation options. Research shows the vast majority of people experiencing homelessness have cell phones, which can often serve as lifelines—or at least they could until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

For the past year, through a collaboration between RAND and the USC School of Social Work, we have followed 25 veterans experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles to better understand why they are living on the streets. When COVID-19 hit and people were ordered to shelter in place, many of the veterans in our study were still left on emptied streets. No longer were they able access the myriad options in public settings that they relied on to charge their phones, such as libraries, and commercial establishments—like cafes and fast food restaurants.

While some homeless social service providers offer cell phone charging services, the standard procedure is for a person to drop off their phone by mid-morning and reclaim it several hours later, leaving that individual without access for several hours during the workday—times when it may be critical to reach health, housing and other social service providers. While there is an underground economy for mobile device charging, the going rate is $2 per charge; an exorbitant sum; fully charging a phone in a home every night for an entire year costs approximately $1.

Read the full article about homelessness access mobile technology by Sarah B. Hunter and Rajeev Ramchand at RAND Corporation.