Why the Homeless Are on Facebook

Earlier this year Health IT blogger Nate Osit wrote a post, Health 2.0: Who’s Not at the Table? He brainstormed ways to get underserved populations ― which he listed as communities of color, LGBTQ communities, immigrant communities and marginally housed communities ― involved in the conversation about how technology can better serve their health needs.

Osit was insightful in identifying a population, the marginally housed and the homeless, that intuition might suggest is the most difficult to reach with technology.

But a recent, though small, study from researchers at the University of Alabama resulted in a surprising finding. Seventy-five percent of the homeless young adults they surveyed said they use social networks. The study (link has a paywall) compared two groups of similarly-aged people. One was a large group of introductory psychology students, and the other was a smaller group of people approached to answer the survey when they entered metropolitan shelters, the abstract said. An article in the Atlantic reported:

Led by the University of Alabama’s Rosanna Guadagno, they surveyed 237 college kids and 65 homeless youth, both with an average age of a little over 19 years old. While a greater percentage of the students were on social networks (over 90 percent), both groups of users reported spending more than an hour per day using Facebook, Twitter, and the like.

There’s reason to take the findings with a grain of salt. They come from a small survey and, as the abstract points out, prior research suggests that these groups of people are more dissimilar than alike. However, a comment from reader kevinsd on the Atlantic article provides some firsthand insight.

I spent a few years on the social margins during the 1990s, and the above finding doesn’t surprise me at all …

It’s a myth that the typical homeless person is entirely without resources; he or she usually has friends who provide small but regular handouts, the detritus of his or her earlier life, and intermittent day work, both legal and illegal. The experience of being homeless over a long period, I think, leads many into highly repetitive obsessive-compulsive and addictive behaviors, both of which aren’t incompatible with use of social networks.