Technology and Life Skills A Path out of Homelessness for U-District Youth
By Ann Beckmann
For homeless youth, access to computers is far from an everyday occurrence. Yet self-reflection, greater confidence and positive change are likely outcomes when homeless young people begin to develop technology and life skills.
Homeless youth served by Street Youth Ministries (SYM) in the University District now participate in technology literacy and life skills classes offered in collaboration with the UW iSchool. The project illustrates how social service agencies can expand program designs so they better integrate with the values and behaviors of those they serve.
Basic computer skills, for example, are necessary to build a resume, find a job website or complete online employment applications. Everyday life skills are just as crucial for homeless youth, so the SYM curriculum combines low-barrier technology skills with ways to work on issues that might prevent youth from setting and achieving their next goals.
Rowena Harper, SYM’s executive director, emphasizes that fundamental computer skills are often lacking among homeless youth. Classes that might help them interact with technology also could make it easier for them to navigate obstacles they may have as a result of their past, Harper suggests.
The alliance began in mid-2007 when Jill Woelfer, then a student in the iSchool Master of Science in Information Management program (MSIM), explored how information systems can help the homeless for a student design competition.
Woelfer, a 2008 MSIM graduate, and iSchool Associate Professor David Hendry discovered U-District agencies serving the homeless had hundreds of brochures and fliers with considerable duplication. For her capstone research project, Woelfer tackled the task of developing ways to use information system design to support more effective and targeted services for the homeless. The belief was youth would be empowered to make better decisions if their specific information needs were addressed.
As a result of Woelfer’s project, Street Youth Ministries, which serves youth ages 13 to 22, developed an interest in the iSchool’s research expertise, in particular the school’s interdisciplinary approach and rigorous study of how people relate to information.
That’s when Hendry and Woelfer became intrigued with an even more humanistic goal: How might information systems improve the lives of homeless youth and better equip them to have a voice?
Their point of view was a good match for the philosophy of Street Youth Ministries, according to Tyler Bauer, SYM’s program manager.
"We don’t tell the homeless what to do with their lives. We let them decide where they want to go," says Bauer.
Last spring, the Washington Legislature allocated $500,000 to better support the state’s community technology programs. As a result, the Community Technology Opportunity Program (CTOP) was established, with goals shaped by the Communities Connect Network project, which aims to increase interactive technology use among nonprofits. The creation of dozens of community technology centers around the state illustrated that developing job skills, increasing academic performance and fostering community engagement are among the major benefits. When Woelfer and Hendry learned about CTOP, they encouraged the homeless youth organization to seek grant funding.
Street Youth Ministries secured a $35,000 CTOP grant to equip its drop-in center with computers and chose to work with Hendry and Woelfer as key collaborators to develop class curriculum, monitor the project and document findings for future offerings.
"If the foundation of SYM hadn’t been there, CTOP wouldn’t have worked, but SYM is a stable, well-staffed and caring organization," says Woelfer, who will enter the iSchool’s Ph.D. program in Information Science in the fall and focus on the project for her dissertation.
Four project goals were laid out in the grant application submitted to CTOP:
Provide computer access for homeless youth
Teach by designing a curriculum specifically for this audience that gives homeless youth a range of opportunities for using technology effectively
Practice by facilitating new projects proposed and run by homeless youth
Reflect by writing about the outcomes so others can benefit from the project and set the stage for research and design investigations.
Jason Seagraves, a former homeless youth himself, was selected to lead the SYM classes for peer-to-peer teaching. Trouble is, getting street youth to participate wasn’t easy at first.
Seagraves says there’s a disconnect between the desire of homeless youth to participate in programs and actually doing so. Bauer at SYM recognized incentives were needed to encourage greater involvement.
One factor that handicapped the project at its outset was the immense freedom homeless young people have on the street, according to Woelfer.
"That’s a big reason why incentives work so well," Bauer notes.
"Incentives would have meant nothing if it weren’t for the people involved," Woelfer adds.
They decided street youth who completed a series of six sessions over three weeks would receive their own iPods and iTunes gift cards, which would further enhance their technology skills.
Seagraves, who had been homeless in numerous cities, says he had never encountered a program that offered not only computer access and tech classes but also incentives.
"Most services for homeless youth elsewhere in the country help you build a resume, get a haircut and clothes for a job interview. They treat homeless youth more like criminals when what they want is to feel safe and welcome," Seagraves notes.
Collectively, the iSchool team and SYM staff established a set of four rules for participants: Don’t abuse the computers, stay focused, be respectful of others and build on others. Build on others, Hendry says, involves helping each other learn.
Five homeless youth successfully completed the first full round of classes in early March. All show big changes in self-confidence, says Bauer, and two are now actively searching for jobs.
"One of them feels as though he’s in a new phase in his life and has a new sense of confidence. He says he doesn’t want to continue to be on the Ave using drugs like his brother," Bauer notes. "Another says he was stuck in neutral and is now in treatment."
Some of the five have expressed interest in affecting social change, according to Bauer and Seagraves.
"They’re realizing they want to give back to the community, that they could work with homeless kids like I do — maybe in a youth home — and not just look for a job pumping gas," Seagraves says.
Although the project is only funded through June of this year, Hendry predicts this will become a multi-year venture. "I think we’re developing a foundation for bigger things," Hendry says.
Bauer feels similarly. "Before long, we’ll have two or three others like Jason working full time on this," he says.
Woelfer smiles as she recalls that last day of classes in March.
"When those five young men got their iPods, the looks on their faces were incredible," she says.
To make a gift to the Design-Sessions/New Technology for Youth Fund that supports this work, please visitthe iSchool's Giving page.