Digital literacy problem of homelessness in pandemic

Digital exclusion of the homeless in America: COVID-19's impact

11 minutes to read
Leonie Milder

On any given night, over half a million people experience homelessness in the United States, roughly 0.17% percent of the population. This percentage has risen during the COVID-19 crisis, whose economical consequences made tens of thousands homeless or financially unstable. The financial crisis is "the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression." To support the economy, the U.S. government made the decision to send out “stimulus checks”, and taxpayers were sent $1400. For most citizens, this process was done automatically, as all information was already registered online.

For people who experience homelessness, however, it was much harder. Public spaces were closed due to COVID, and a data plan or even a phone can be too expensive. Due to this, a large portion of the homeless population never saw a penny of their stimulus check. People either were not aware of their right to their stimulus check or did not have the resources or capacity to complete the process. This article asks how COVID has affected the digital literacy level of homeless people in the US and what recommendations or policies could be useful in digitally including them in a way that is resistant to external factors such as a pandemic.

Digital barriers to the stimulus check

Long before the COVID-19 crisis, there were an estimated 553 thousand people in the United States experiencing homelessness on a given night (January 2017). This translates to 17 people experiencing homelessness per every 10 thousand people, with some states having a higher rate of homelessness than others. For example, Washington, D.C., (110) and Hawaii (51) have very high rates while Mississippi (5) has a much lower rate. Responses to this vary across the country with a variety of emergency shelters and housing and services programs offered. This creates differences in internet access, as some shelters offer a stable internet connection.

As Katie Mays describes to U.S. News & World Report: “Everything is on the internet, and that doesn’t stop if you’re poor.” Mays is a program support specialist at Dignity Village, a self-run community for the homeless. She notes that many benefits or help for the homeless, such as food stamps, are now run through online portals. Though many people who experience homelessness have a phone, most homeless phone owners can not afford data plans and rely on public spaces with internet access. A study from the Journal of Medical Internet Research (VonHoltz et al., 2018) found that while experiencing homelessness, 86% of participants were able to access the internet once a week. Commonly used devices for doing so were smartphones (66%) and public computers (59%). 

Now that the Coronavirus has been around for over a year and many government-run institutions (e.g., public libraries) are closed due to lockdowns, getting access to the internet when you don’t have a technical device of your own or knowledge about how to operate one is hard. Shelters are also mostly closed, as they are prioritizing COVID-19 patients. When a homeless person wants to make sure they can sleep at a shelter, they have to make a reservation online. Later, stimulus checks were introduced as financial aid for people struggling due to COVID-19. Most US citizens had no responsibility to sign up for these checks, except homeless people. But again, this process was online, making it harder to sign up.

Another problem was that the check could not be mailed anywhere, as the people signing up had no permanent address. Further, when stimulus checks were announced, it was not clear whether homeless people also had a right to these checks. Many homeless people were not even aware of this until after the stimulus checks were sent out. When multiple viral tweets about people experiencing homelessness being eligible for stimulus checks went viral, people started actively helping the homeless get their stimulus checks. This also caught the attention of the New York City Bar Association, who helped raise awareness.

Viral tweet by Clarke @dovenymph on homeless people being qualified for the stimulus check

Digital exclusion

The impact of COVID-19 on homeless people in the United States is an example of how digital literacy and access can construct inequality. Many are not, or barely, able to access or use digital media in order to enjoy the countless possibilities they have to offer. We can observe an issue of voice here, as mentioned above, for many (social) services internet access is seen as normative, making it a prestigious linguistic resource (Blommaert, 2005). While many homeless people in the United States were able to access the internet occasionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced another form of inequality due to the inaccessibility of digital resources in public spaces. Because of this, many homeless people are struggling to communicate about this issue themselves, and to fully enjoy the social benefits offered through digital media.

The pandemic’s major impact on the accessibility of digital infrastructures for homeless people in particular has had serious socio-economic consequences that reinforce their already underprivileged position. This lack of access to digital infrastructures falls under what Ragnedda and Mutsvairo (2018) call the ‘first degree of digital exclusion’, which is based on the possession of or access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the internet. Someone can generally be considered digitally excluded when they are not able to access and use ICTs. These technologies can include features such as the internet, relevant content and services, and education for the digital literacy skills needed to effectively use digital technologies (Ragnedda & Mutsvairo, 2018). 

Access to the Internet and ICTs is not the only basis for digital exclusion. Ragnedda and Mutsvairo (2018) formulate three degrees of digital exclusion. The first, as mentioned, has to do with possession of and access to ICTs. The second degree of digital exclusion has to do with inequalities in the use of ICTs. Finally, the third degree of digital exclusion concerns the social benefits and tangible outcomes users can gain from access to and use of ICTs (Ragnedda & Mutsvairo, 2018). Age- and geography-related factors or the (lack of) digital infrastructures in certain areas can also influence whether someone is digitally excluded or included (Spotti, personal communication, February 8, 2021). 

So why is digital inclusion so important on a societal level? In short, digital inclusion plays a role in whether people can fully participate in a "digitally enabled society" where all kinds of services, opportunities, and knowledge are increasingly moving into the digital realm - a society that functions in an online-offline nexus. Ragnedda and Mutsvairo (2018) suggest that an increase in accessibility of ICTs and the internet could be a good starting point in moving towards a society where all members can be digitally included.

However, it does not necessarily help everyone to fully appreciate the opportunities and advantages that come with being digitally included. Rather, a proficient level of digital literacy is key to digital inclusion (Ragnedda & Mutsvairo, 2018). More specifically, they argue that it is absolutely crucial to invest in “infrastructures and technologies to expand the possibilities to access the internet and provide enough training and support for the digital skills required in an advanced digitally literate society” (Ragnedda & Mutsvairo, 2018). Blommaert (2020), when addressing the issues of new technologies in society, provides a similar answer and suggests that education about and through media is very important if we want to use these technologies in a way that will benefit society.

High prices, slow connection

When analysing the digital exclusion homeless people experience, we are actually looking into the effects of digitalisation on the societal 'deviant.'  The simplest view of deviance is essentially statistical, defining as deviant anything that varies too widely from the average (Becker, 1963). As stated above, having access to the internet has become normative. Possession of a mobile device gives us full access to society.

According to the Pew Research Center, 93% of American adults use the internet, while in early 2000 it was only half of all adults. A noticeable increase is the age group 65+: only 14% of this target group used the internet in 2000, which has increased to 75% in 2021. As of January 2021, there were approximately 269.5 million mobile internet users in the United States, representing over 90 per cent of all active internet users nationwide. The average price of an internet connection in the United States is $61.07 a month, which is more expensive than any European country.  

A Microsoft study found that a quarter of Americans cannot afford to go online to pay certain bills, apply for jobs, or join a zoom call for study. The high cost of broadband is mainly due to the lack of competition that leads to high prices. 70% of Americans have either zero or just one option for broadband providers. For a competitive and free market, there should be at least three different options. America also lacks the infrastructure needed to get broadband internet to all places. The internet has ‘out speeded’ the States.

The Microsoft analysis also includes county unemployment data, which points to a strong correlation between joblessness and low rates of broadband use. Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, said: “The worst place to be is in a place where there is no access to the technology everyone else is benefiting from.” People who do not have access to the digital world are left a large step behind on the social and professional ladder.

Seeking solutions 

There are some general changes that could be made to policies surrounding the inaccessibility of ICT services by the poor and displaced US citizens. For instance, the inability to apply for the stimulus check and other services without internet access should be revised. As a general rule, inhabitants of the country eligible for the benefits should not be digitally excluded due to circumstances often out of the individuals’ control. This would tackle one, if not two of the three degrees of digital exclusion as described by Ragnedda and Mutsvairo (2018).

The challenges surrounding digital literacy are in this case somewhat avoided because of the ability to apply for benefits in person. Another possibility would be the crucial need to provide and expand access to the internet for the populace and especially those financially and locationally indisposed.

With the increasingly normative nature of the internet as an indisputable part of our daily lives, there are still significant infrastructure deficits and relatively high costs. The rising costs of data plans and a monopolized infrastructure has stunted the growth of the internet. Of course, broad band internet is generally hard to acquire when one is without a house. But as the data shows, most homeless people access the internet at least once a week through a smartphone or public computers, the first mostly being more expensive and thus harder for people to keep using, and the latter being closed or limited due to current COVID-19 protocols (VanHoltz et al., 2018).

The pandemic has majorly impacted the accessibility of digital infrastructure for those who are already struggling. The need to house COVID-19 patients and socially distance people, should be balanced with maintaining access to the internet - and therefore public services - for the vulnerable. Systems such as digital applications for the stimulus checks are an example of how bureaucracy and the near-sighted push for digitalization have further marginalized those without internet access.

If the issues of digitalization benefit one part of society but exclude another part, how can it still be a net gain to our growth? As Blommaert (2020) argues, for a technology to be normative and beneficial to us as a society, we must be critical in addressing its issues. While Blommaert also argues that education about and through the media is essential, we believe that without access to said technology, part of society will not be able to grow and benefit from it. Which leads us right back to the importance of digital inclusion in our society, especially during this pandemic.


Becker, H. S. (1963). Outsiders: Studies In The Sociology Of Deviance. Free Press.

Blommaert, J [JanBlommaert]. (2020, June 19). Jan Blommaert on “Old new media” [Video file]. YouTube.

Blommaert, J. (2005). Language and inequality. In J. Blommaert, Discourse: a critical introduction (pp. 68-96). Cambridge University Press.

Ragnedda, M. & Mutsvairo, B.  (2018). Digital Inclusion: Empowering People Through Information and Communication Technologies. In M. Ragnedda & B. Mutsvairo, Digital inclusion: An international comparative analysis (p. 7-14). Lexington Books.

VonHoltz, L. A. H., Frasso, R., Golinkoff, J. M., Lozano, A. J., Hanlon, A., & Dowshen, N. (2018). Internet and Social Media Access Among Youth Experiencing Homelessness: Mixed-Methods Study. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 20(5), e184.