Audio Stories Reports

‘Digital Poverty’

Reported by Paul

Published on Tuesday, January 11th, 2022

Digital Inclusion/Exclusion
Audio Stories Reports

‘Digital Poverty’

Written by Paul

Published on Tuesday, January 11th, 2022

Digital Inclusion/Exclusion

This is my first contribution for Groundswell for 2022. As requested, this is all about homelessness, health & digital connectivity. I focused on needing a device for everything, which means mental health & physical health is incorporated in that.
I know Groundswell like to labour the specifics of a health issue, but I take it as read if you can’t get online, you can’t book a doctors appointment online or if you can’t use social media the way your friends do, you become socially excluded and this will likely impact your mental health. So I don’t make the points explicitly in this piece but expect the listener/reader to come to the same conclusions as I would, having done so.


It’s strange, I’ve been asked to talk about digital poverty and connectivity as it relates to health and homelessness. And I was pondering this the other day and thought 20 years ago everything was so easy. To get online in central London was a piece of cake. Our rivers even have their own wi-fi, there was a River Thames wi-fi, there was a Trafalgar Square wi-fi. There was no signing on, logging on, cookies, give us your email, pass us your telephone number nonsense. It was just ‘here’s a Wi-Fi connection, do you want to connect?’ and you went ‘yes, yes, I do.’

So the only thing that excluded you back in 2000 from the digital world was a device, and even that was a piece of cake. There was easy internet cafes. You could just walk in and put a pound in a coin operated slot, and you’d have an hour’s worth of internet on one of the most advanced and up to date machines you could possibly think of.

Oh, how the world has changed. Now, when we talk about digital poverty and digital exclusion you need so many different levels of things to get access to the internet now. You can’t just get on a wi-fi, you have to have an email address and in some cases, some wi-fi even require you to have a phone number, you can’t get access to social media to connect with people without giving away all your data. And the idea now of just giving someone a device is not even conceivable. Now you have to give them a support team and night support team, you have to give them a device that they don’t get affected by poverty shaming.

Mobile phones and tablets have become what were in the 80s, the flat screen television shamers.  You know, how it’s how can you be on benefits and afford a flat screen television? Now, of course, that’s the only thing that exists. There is no alternative to flat screen television, but then then it was kind of seen as the cutting edge thing and if you were squandering your benefits on something that you were going to watch 24 hours a day, seven days a week, because there was nothing else to do then ‘shame on you‘.

We now see that in electronic devices. ‘How can you afford a mobile phone if you’re begging for food?’  Well, because you have to have a mobile phone, because the likelihood is you’re not going to have cash. [Metro Article. ‘On benefits and proud?’ Not for these long-term sickness benefits recipients]. And if you’re going to give me some money I’m going to need something to read that data off your card.

We live in a different world. Twenty years ago, the internet was a tool and an access to information that was finite, precise, accurate, edited, controlled. Twenty years later, we live in a world with the majority information you’re going to get is fake, difficult to access and controlled by corporations.

Now, I think the biggest problems most people don’t consider when they think about Wi-Fi is that Wi-Fi now is a human right. You cannot live in the 21st century without a connection to the internet. And if you wonder why that should be specific to people experiencing homelessness, it’s because their entire welfare system is based online. If you’re going to access disability benefits, you’ve got to go online to claim them. [Article in the The Daily Record. The DWP could monitor your bank account and your social media activity over New Year and Christmas]

If you’re going to communicate with job searches or anything of this, they want to track you. So you have to have a device that they can track you and check what you’re doing. The DWP invest 3 million pounds a year just to check what people are tweeting about to see if it correlates with what they say their conditions are. This is an abhorrent state of affairs, but one that people need to be aware of.

So gone are the days where you can just be yourself. You have to monitor and edit what you say, knowing that somebody from the DWP may misinterpret. You have to understand what cookies are. Somebody has to teach you that actually, every time you get on a website that is taking information from your device, and people who are experiencing homelessness are the most private people you will ever know. Not least because they have to deal with things like CHAIN, which is a database which actually breaches GDPR.

The General Data Protection Regulations that the EU introduced, which is in British statute, very clearly states that you can only collect information against a person’s will if it can be justifiably proven to be in the public interest. That then has to maintain with the conditions that the information you hold have to be accurate and up to date and CHAIN is not and never has been, nor never will be, as is perfectly illustrated by the vast difference between the numbers that it captured in terms of rough sleeping [Crisis on how ‘Everyone In’ exposed gaps in the government  approach to rough sleeping] saying there were about four and a half thousand when in fact they were over thirty seven thousand people housed in ‘Everyone In’. So it is a completely useless tool. So by definition, it cannot cannot in any circumstances be claimed as being in the public interest.

Yet if you’re experiencing homelessness and you engage with such services, you’re put on that database and you cannot get yourself off. It is illegal, but we’re stuck with it, which means that when people experiencing homelessness are given devices, the first thing I’m concerned with is how do I make sure nobody’s getting any information about me?

There’s a ton of skill sets for that if you turn off your cookies blanket. And cookies, [IPS article – the problem with Cookies] for those who don’t know cookies are little bits of information that are held on your device, then shared with websites, and they’re saved on that website and then shared with other companies.

And it’s personal data is your personal data and you’re kind of going, ‘I don’t want to share that’. So if you turn off all your cookies, most websites on the internet will now not work. So you have a little pop up that says, ‘would you like to turn off various bits of cookies?’. So we’re only collecting or how using the cookies are essential to keep our website working. And it’s complicated.

If you have a device in the 21st century now and it breaks, you shatter the screen. It is not cost effective to repair it. [Blog – Why cracked screens are more expensive than your device]. It’s going to cost you about 45 or 50 pounds, you know, a decent tablet that you’re buying after a new one has just come out. So you know, the Samsung 2022, the Samsung to 2021 will be a half price or less.

And that’s what you go for. But the choice now, there is no freedom of choice. You have to have a ton of what’s known as bloatware [this link includes advice on how to remove it] – software that’s on your device you don’t need. It’s eating up data and churning out information to various people you don’t want getting it. So it’s got complicated. And some of the other things people say, ‘well, why don’t you just use the computers at the library’, and you’re like, ‘because they use old web browsers’.

And people don’t realise that the DWP and organisations like that are only configured to work with the most up to date browsers? And a lot of the machines in libraries are old, so you can’t even put the most up to date browsers on them. So it’s not even a matter of upgrading them. It’s a matter of buying new computers with the latest thing which libraries just can’t afford.

So whilst it’s great to get these, you know, just do the general search or get on your email, it is absolutely useless if you need to be dealing with benefits or officialdom in any shape, form or fashion. And again, we come back to that cookies problem.

The other bit that people forget is the cost now of accessing data. Everything’s been rigged up, so you burn tons and tons and tons of data, so if you’re on a mobile device with a data plan, it doesn’t take very long for you to use that all app and be forced to pay more money. And that’s more money, we don’t have money.

So you’ve got Wi-Fi restricting you getting on it for free, data lines that are contracted because of how much data that you can actually use and then the storage management, file management. I mean, all of these things now need to be integrated and one of the worst things from a homeless perspective is that you’re kind of laden with what’s available.

And actually, what should be in existence for you is a completely open source device, which is completely free of cookies that can operate in an internet environment that isn’t a corporation such as Google. And actually be able to do everything you want to under the shroud of privacy without any other bits and pieces on your device and this this needs to be made for you now. You couldn’t walk into a store and ask for something that isn’t a Google Android or iPhone or Windows. [Article in Wired. ‘Why I’m saying goodbye to Apple, Google and Microsoft’.]

‘That’s it. They have three choices – pick one.’ And you go, ‘no, no, no. I want something that isn’t a branded product.’ ‘Can’t do that. Can’t do that. You have to pick one of these three.’

But there are means and ways of doing it, [Ubuntu is an alternative operating system] but it’s really, really complicated, you have to be pretty tech savvy to be able to use them, and they’re very, very difficult to get hold of. So suddenly, the world to someone experiencing homelessness when it comes to technology is very, very, very complicated.

And I genuinely wish we could go back 20 years, especially here in London, and I’d be able to just get on with their lives and be able to access the internet in a cafe for a pound or get a device that people didn’t shame you for or actually use a device that somebody isn’t trying to steal all your data every minute of the day.

So some things to think about digital exclusion, digital poverty and how we connect with the world now in the 21st century is probably one of the hugest barriers to anyone experiencing homelessness.

Written by Paul

Paul Atherton FRSA is a social campaigning film-maker, playwrightauthor & artist. His work has been screened on the Coca-Cola Billboard on Piccadilly Circus, premiered at the Leicester Square Odeon Cinema, his video-diary has been collected into the permanent collection of the Museum of London, he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and was selected as one of the London Library's 2021/22 emerging writers during covid lockdown, where he is currently writing his memoir.

He achieved most of this whilst homeless, an ongoing experience that has been his life for over a decade in London. In the last two years he’s made Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 his bedroom and became part of what he coined the #HeathrowHomeless before being moved into emergency hotel accommodation for the duration of Covid-Lockdown in Marylebone on 3rd April 2020.

In the past ten years he’s experienced every homeless initiative that Charities, Local Authorities and the City has had to offer. All of which clearly failed.

With the end of “Everyone In”, Paul has no idea where his next move is going to be, but he expects he’ll be returning to Heathrow.

Read all of Paul's articles


Digital Inclusion/Exclusion

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