Refreshing social media is a common morning ritual for many of us. With one eye open, breaking every rule of sleep hygiene, we open an app to get an overview of what we missed as we slept. Family updates, funny videos and, in the era of the later stages of COVID-19, news about numbers, vaccine eligibility and what’s open have become a critical part of our information diet.
But what about folks who rely on traditional media, like newspapers and television, to learn about rapidly changing rules and recommendations? Or those who typically use the library to access social media — an option that hasn’t been fully available, if at all, in the last year or more?
Digital communications have revolutionized the way that people learn about what’s going on. During the pandemic, this has been more important than ever. A Pew poll from this year found that close to 90% of Americans get their news from social media on a smartphone sometimes, while 60% always use social media to learn about the news.
The picture is different for people who are unstably housed, though, which can create a very real digital divide.
The vast majority of homeless individuals have a cell phone — 97% have had access to a phone in the last three months — though phone turnover is high due to inability to consistently pay for or charge devices. However, just about half use their phones for social media.
Libraries have been closed for more than a year, cutting off communication for a lot of folks in the community. Since person-to-person contact has become a dangerous prospect, many regional providers and organizations have paused their attempts to bridge the gap for folks who are sleeping outside, in cars or in shelters. Seattle Public Library has continued to loan out hundreds of wireless hotspots during the pandemic, making wi-fi available to more folks. But that program depends on access to a device — whether that’s a laptop or a smartphone — and a charger.
If you think you’d been confused by how to get a vaccination, imagine trying to navigate these portals without social media, a phone and internet. Compounded by neighbors who are more concerned with “clearing” encampments than helping people access the services they need, this has become a new kind of battle.
All of which means that homeless folks — who are some of the most at-risk for COVID-19 based on demographics and complications — are receiving news that may not be current, correct or tailored to their needs. And if there’s any way that we can help, rather than harm, our homeless neighbors during this time, we absolutely must.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer living in Portland.
Read more of the Apr. 7-13, 2021 issue.