More than half of the local homeless youth have access to technology, often via smart phone, but advocates and organizations are hoping to reach the remaining population.
“At least 60 percent of youth, in studies, have access to technology,” said Carlos T. Carter, executive director of the Homeless Children’s Education Fund. “How do we get that other 40 percent engaged? And it’s not just getting them a phone, so how do we get them access? They have to get service too.”
According the most recent point-in-time count, more than 1,100 people were experiencing homelessness in Allegheny County. Last year, the Homeless Children’s Fund partnered with a design firm to create the BigBurgh app, in which local homeless youth could easily pinpoint services such as mental health care to a meal.
Carter said building upon existing apps like BigBurgh is necessary, as is leveraging existing programs to ensure they are working together and not duplicating services.
Carter and leaders from other organizations met last week for a summit where they proposed getting donated phones from community groups, or going straight to tech companies such as Google, Verizon and Apple to explore possible partnerships for technology and the services needed to make the technology useable.
But Carter said the technology should also be something the youth will want to engage with.
“Technology is a gateway, it doesn’t solve the problem,” he said. “It’s a gateway to get youth to resources, but what’s the language of the youth, how do they communicate? I think that’s important because you can develop technology but if it’s not relevant to the people, it can’t reach them.”
Wayne Centrone, senior health advisor at the Center for Social Innovation in Portland, Ore., attended last week’s summit and said it’s crucial that homeless advocates and organizations start to take action.
“We’ve been talking about this for too long,” he said. “The time for talk has ended, we have to do things.”
Carter said education is also key, making sure educators, service providers and anyone working closely with youth know what homelessness is.
“It’s not just people in shelters,” he said, “It’s also lacking a regular, fixed and adequate nighttime residence.”
Summit attendees said better awareness campaigns in schools, libraries and other community spots could help point those in need to services.
They said they also hope to create a “youth congress” that would include adults, but will center on identifying the greatest needs of young people and a program of youth ambassadors within schools who can work with peers on accessing needed services.
Leaders will reconvene in mid-September to gage their progress and plan the next steps.