Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Newly Homeless, New to Social Services

This image, which I found on PATH's always good LA Homeless Blog, speaks volumes about the current economic crisis in the U.S.. As the economy deteriorates and jobs are lost, there will undoubtedly be a huge influx of people seeking "services" from government and nonprofit agencies, and it's likely that many of these people may never have sought such services before. While many people have been without work at some point in their lives and may know how to look for a job, how many have had to seek shelter? Or free health care? Or food? Or any of the other basic services most people usually take for granted?

Here at Community Voice Mail, we've been talking a lot about the information needs of people living in poverty, and how they gain access to this information. Chris Le Dantec, a Ph.D candidate in the Human Centered Computing program at Georgia Tech, spoke last week at our national conference. He talked about his research with clients of two social service agencies, and the role that technology (broadly defined) plays in how they access information and in how they manage their own identities. Mobile phones, for example, have great value for low-income people not only as communication devices but also as a sign of some life stablility and as a social symbol. Other researchers, such as Julie Hersberger and Donna Beegle, have also written about how people living in poverty access and share information, and this is helping to shape the future direction of our information delivery system (formerly known simply as "our voice mail service"). It seems there is a learning curve for figuring out how to function within this social service world, and how to access the things you need to survive. The longer you've been in this state of crisis and transition, the more knowledge you've acquired about how the "system" works, and the more you've learned about how to access the information you need.

I wonder, however, about the people who may soon experience homelessness for the first time due to foreclosure, or those who lose their jobs and have no financial or social safety net to protect them from poverty. If this is the first time they've needed the kind of help provided by nonprofits and government-run agencies, how will they find out about them? And will the help available meet their expectations, or (more likely) will they find resources scarce, agencies underfunded, and demand exceeding supply for all things? What would I do if I woke up tomorrow and had absolutely nothing? Where would I start?

There has been a strong undercurrent of poverty in this country that has largely been overlooked by those not directly experiencing it. I fear this undercurrent may become more of a tsunami in the near future, with a lot of people seeking information about services and finding out how difficult it is to find. We have a lot of work to do, and quickly.

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