Perhaps one of the most pervasive issues facing any society, homelessness is now being mediated through another, equally pervasive device, the cellular phone.
Researchers, case managers and nonprofits around the world study how to help those who find themselves without a permanent place to call home. While many services aim to help mitigate the circumstances in which homeless individuals become entrenched or eradicate the situation altogether, one Oklahoma researcher seeks to meet these folks where they are — on their smartphones.
Dr. Michael Businelle, director of mobile health at the Stephenson Cancer Center at the University of Oklahoma, works to create apps to increase positive health outcomes for common issues like smoking cessation, medication adherence and through a series of grant-funded research projects, homelessness. Businelle said there are hundreds of thousands of mobile apps out there, but his team builds apps based upon science and then tests them to make sure they’re helping, not hurting, people.
Part of his work includes a study that is looking at issues facing homeless individuals that were released from county jails in the Dallas-Fort Worth region.
Like many other research studies, though, current research focuses on the concentrated groups of homeless individuals in metro areas that are generally living on the street. In rural Oklahoma, like many rural areas, that isn’t always how the issue of homelessness presents. As Businelle said, in rural areas, there might be 100 homeless individuals seeking shelters in a 100-mile radius, where in a metro area there could be 1,000 such individuals seeking assistance in a 10-mile radius.
The definition of what homelessness is can vary greatly between agencies and situations. Federally, homelessness is defined broadly to include many situations which lead to unstable housing situations. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, an individual is homeless if the individual lives on the streets, in a shelter or mission, in a vehicle or an abandoned building, or any other unstable or non-permanent situation. Grace Center Executive Director Lesly Dvorak, said often people who haven’t experienced homelessness don’t understand how pervasive it can be.
“There’s a gap between what the majority see as ‘homeless’ and the actual homeless population,” Dvorak said. “People don’t live in this world — they don’t understand.”
A yearly point-in-time survey counts the number of people identified as living on the streets or in shelters but it leaves out a huge sub-section of homeless individuals: Those living ‘doubled-up’ or in other unstable situations, such as couch surfing or staying with friends or family.
“A student crashing on a different couch every other week, two or three families living in a single family home without sufficient space for the amount of people...these situations meet that federal definition of homelessness,” Dvorak said.
“They have a place to stay… today. That could blow up at any moment.” At the Grace Center, unaccompanied youth is an often-served population. Due to changes in how the state operates children’s shelters and the liability involved with older children, they are more often finding themselves without a place to call home for many reasons. These unaccompanied youths are part of the fastest growing homeless population in the country.
“The emancipation process is long, so for a 16 to 17-year-old child that can’t sign a contract or obtain medical care for themselves, the liability issues for a family that takes them in can limit what help is available to them. Some people are willing to look past that,” Dvorak said. “But it doesn’t solve other issues. They’ve been on the street a long time — they don’t want rules. They don’t know what it looks like to be in a “normal” family situation. They go into that situation for the first time and they may act out, which means the whole situation could blow at any moment.”
Often, that leads to the teens living in a shanty, abandoned building or in other unstable or undesirable situations.
That doesn’t mean the situation is without hope.
“Community support is what makes things happen,” Dvorak said. “Advocacy is a huge part of what we do.”
Providing a way to have basic needs met, the Grace Day Center operates by meeting those who come in where they are. Some may need a shower, or a phone number to put down on job applications, Dvorak said. Day Center Director Megan Boyer is at the front line for them.
“She is the key,” Dvorak said. “Megan is there, having those conversations, getting to the heart of the issue.”
Dvorak said those conversations are what make the difference. It can be overwhelming to have a host of interventions and services thrown at you when you’re in a desperate situation. Dvorak said Boyer’s approach of developing a relationship with the individuals she encounters and connecting them to the services they want first, then following up until the individual reaches a successful outcome, makes all the difference.
That approach is what Businelle’s research encourages. The applications are being developed with the goal of reducing the issues that lead to prolonged or chronic homelessness. The key, Businelle said, is connection to a case manager who assists individuals with finding resources and facilitates follow through with mental health and other medical care.
“Studies have shown that increased case manager interaction helps people get out of homelessness sooner,” Businelle said. “There is little research done on homeless individuals in general, but far fewer studies are done in rural areas.”
Mobile apps can create not just an easy-to-use network of care agencies, but also help those agencies reach out to encourage repeated interactions. That increased contact could, according to Businelle’s research so far, create more favorable outcomes for those striving to get out of homelessness.
“You can create opportunities to help without spending a lot of one-on-one time with the case manager,” Businelle said. “Useful information like phone numbers, AA or NA meetings, transportation and other resources could be accessed with just a click, all in one place. “It could also cut down the number of missed appointments — they can just click a button instead of having to remember a phone number or a name, it connects them to their personal case manager or to a crisis line that can offer immediate care.”
With 76 percent of homeless individuals having mobile phones, Businelle said, the programs have a real chance at making a huge difference.
That access to mobile phones comes from a revamped Lifeline Program, a creation of the Reagan administration, Businelle said.
“All you have to do is look at social media when the chronically homeless come up,” Dvorak said. “It isn’t a situation where we can just ‘swoop in and save them.’”
Dvorak said many things have been tried with the city’s chronic homeless population.
“It’s a very complex situation. The situation doesn’t fit in a nice little box,” Dvorak said, adding that the issues that lead to homelessness often don’t happen overnight and aren’t likely to be solved that soon — but that with the trauma-informed care approach and increasing reliability of services in the local area the potential for progress is real.