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Why WiFi should be a minimum standard in accommodation for people experiencing homelessness

  • 5 min read |
  • Posted by Louis Kirby
  • On 08 September 2023

The internet plays a central role in the function of public, social and economic life. It brings opportunities like affordable shopping, food delivery, remote working or learning, and has become an essential utility in the home. However, so much of what is available online is based on assumptions around secure housing.

People living in temporary accommodation (TA) face many kinds of exclusion within society. Being homeless limits your access to much of what we take for granted and Justlife believes providing internet access in TA is one way to reduce this exclusion.

What is Digital inclusion and exclusion?

Digital inclusion means safe, reliable use and access to digital services. Digital exclusion is created by barriers to this access such as lack of devices, internet access or digital skills. This is also often described as digital poverty.

Digital access is now required for fair and equal participation in social and economic life.The gap between those with or without internet access risks dividing their opportunities in society. Those already at a disadvantage are at a greater risk of being digitally left behind, widening the gap of opportunity.

Digital exclusion in Temporary Accommodation

A common theme from our frontline support work as well as discussions at our regional Temporary Accommodation Action Groups (TAAGs) has been internet access within TA. As daily life becomes more reliant on the internet, internet access is becoming an essential utility.

Life in TA is meant to offer an opportunity to rebuild from a difficult situation and begin a journey to stable accommodation. However, the facilities provided are not always conducive to this. As well as a roof, a bed and cooking facilities, we believe that TA should include Wi-Fi as a minimum standard, to ensure the experience of TA is as short, safe, and healthy as possible.

We have found that very few TA providers provide Wi-Fi access in their building. Many properties require a service charge from TA residents for essential utilities, however internet access is rarely perceived as one of them.

Living in TA is uncertain. Individuals and families are placed on a nightly licence, they could be moved on immediately or forced to stay for years whilst they wait for a long term housing plan. Without knowing how long a stay might last, residents are unable to commit to lengthy internet contracts. Shorter term rates are far more expensive and some landlords won’t allow adaptations to the property that would allow broadband. Private rented properties require the tenants to arrange their own internet connection, however unlike TA these tenancies are fixed and protected.

This limits people staying in TA to using mobile devices at home to access the internet. Not only is this limited to smaller mobile devices that don't support all functions but often, TA properties are within multi occupancy buildings, with many units crammed into small spaces. Those relying on mobile data for access may be placed in basement rooms or crowded buildings that don’t have reliable signal.

Why digital inclusion is vital in temporary accommodation

Internet access is particularly vital for those experiencing homelessness and can directly affect their physical and mental health, finances, employment and social isolation. Being digitally excluded can delay your route to secure housing, affect your access to benefits or reduce your access to healthcare. Below are some specific areas in how those experiencing homelessness are directly affected by digital exclusion.

Universal Credit

Since the transition to an online based benefit system in 2013, claimants are able to access information on their claim, update their work coach via the ‘journal’ and receive updates and jobs. However, claimants can be sanctioned for not updating their online journal irrespective of their internet access at home. A reliance on the online system means increased phone waiting times and closures of job centres.

Housing register bidding

Many local authority’s housing registers are only available online and applicants may be excluded from having the same choice and autonomy in long term move-on options unless they have internet access. The websites are also often difficult to navigate on the smaller mobile devices that people in TA tend to have.

Online Healthcare

The NHS’ shift to digitising appointment making and prescription services means that those without internet access are restricted to using limited telephone or face to face services, often missing out on appointments, reminders or medication.

School and Education

Since the pandemic, school curriculums have adopted online learning and children without WIFI or devices at home are at risk of falling behind with their education, reducing future opportunities for families who have spent time in TA. Parents also miss out on news and updates from the school if they are not able to get online.

Social connection and entertainment

Some TA properties don’t allow visitors and residents rely on internet access to connect with friends or family. Added to that, the number of out of area placements has increased, intensifying the need for digital inclusion at home.

Response and Changes

In response to the increased isolation in TA caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and its lockdowns, Justlife promoted digital inclusion through frontline projects in Manchester and Brighton. In Manchester, we provided and delivered digital devices as well as ongoing IT support to those isolated by lockdown. In Brighton, we coordinated a successful pilot project alongside Jangala to install Wifi in a temporary accommodation unit.

However, since the pandemic digital inclusion has faded from the headlines and so has much of its funding. There have been no changes to legislation around basic amenities in TA. This is where we look to carry our frontline and TAAG experiences into policy change in our All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Households in Temporary Accommodation.

Our APPG calls to update legislation to provide basic facilities and adaptations within temporary accommodation which include Wifi access. We believe lack of essential utilities creates a risk of further health complications and has a negative impact on day-to-day life and educational attainment for those living in TA.

Internet access alone will not solve digital exclusion, but providing Wifi for those living in temporary accommodation will help bridge the gap of exclusion to work towards a future where everyone’s stay is as short, safe and healthy as possible.