Four things we’re learning about digital access for people experiencing homelessness

blog | 26 Oct 2022

Challenging assumptions about how people sleeping rough get online and use digital services

Throughout 2022, Innovation Unit has been working with partners Infoxchange, Anglicare, and Anthologie to design a world-first digital access portal commissioned by the WA Government for people experiencing homelessness and the services supporting them.

The online portal will be a digital front door to support people experiencing homelessness. It will connect them to critical accommodation services and support the services to coordinate and deliver better outcomes for our community.

Unlike many digital products and services, the portal needs to work seamlessly for a variety of different users including people experiencing rough sleeping. At the start of our discovery work, we wondered how the online experience could be best designed for people experiencing rough sleeping and asked ourselves questions such as:

  • Do people sleeping rough have smartphones? How do they access the internet?
  • Would people experiencing rough sleeping feel comfortable using an online system?
  • How would this work well with the existing service system?

Through 24 in-depth interviews with people with lived experience, four observations at homelessness accommodation and support services, and ongoing engagement with lived experience advisors, we heard that an online services portal has the potential to make lives easier for people experiencing homelessness as well as service providers. However, there are considerations for designing online experiences to ensure they respond to the needs of rough sleepers. Detailed below, they include:

  • digital access
  • digital literacy
  • managing accounts and sharing data
  • maintaining human connection.

Digital access

There is a broadly held assumption that people experiencing rough sleeping do not have their own mobile phones. However, we heard that many do have their own smartphones and they depend on these for essential everyday tasks. We also heard that mobile phones are used for online access far more often than other devices (such as computers).
Research from as early as 2014 in Australia also found that the vast majority of people experiencing homelessness own phones.

95% of people experiencing homelessness surveyed own a mobile phone compared to ACMA-estimated 92% of all Australians over 18
77% own a smartphone compared to ACMA-estimated 64% in Australian population
Humphry, J. (2014). Homeless and Connected: Mobile Phones and the Internet in the Lives of Homeless Australians. Retrieved from
Note: this is the most recent research in this field in Australia.

However, there are challenges experienced by rough sleepers that don’t typically affect the rest of the population. A high ‘turnover’ of phones occurs amongst rough sleepers due to theft, loss, or breakage of phones. Some people, particularly those escaping domestic violence, also change phones or SIM cards regularly to protect their safety.

Rough sleepers also face the challenge of maintaining sufficient data to access the internet on their phone. They address this issue by making use of free Wi-Fi at homelessness services (e.g. engagement hubs), libraries, shopping centres and other public facilities, or using mobile hotspotting.

Making repeated phone calls to services to ask about availability or when there’s no response, and having to wait on the line for a long time, also uses substantial phone credit. Some homelessness services and related services (e.g. hospital social workers) provide phones, chargers, and credit to help with this.

What does this mean for designing an online experience?

  • A universally accessible website (rather than an app) optimised for mobile devices, but that can be accessed anywhere, including on public devices like libraries or even a borrowed device like a friend’s phone is important. This has implications for privacy and security.
  • Providing an online option for finding information and navigating the service system is likely to reduce the amount of phone credit and battery used by rough sleepers.

Digital literacy

As with the general population, there is a wide range of levels of digital literacy amongst rough sleepers, from very competent to very low literacy. Some people have substantial digital experience (e.g., through past education or work) while others have very little experience or challenges due to low literacy, vision impairment, or learning needs.

Regardless of digital literacy levels, we heard from most people sleeping rough that they are already using smartphones regularly to access the internet for emails, Centrelink and other government services, online banking, searching, social media, and key websites such as AskIzzy, Seek, and Gumtree. For those who did not have a lot of past digital experience, they have quickly developed skills as a result of needing to survive in a ‘digital world’ where essential services like welfare, health and banking are all online.

What does this mean for designing an online experience?

  • Whilst best practice web accessibility remains important, for rough sleepers, ease of use through well-designed and tested product journeys has huge accessibility impact. Simplify, simplify, simplify.
  • To accommodate people with visual impairments or low literacy levels, any text needs to be in plain language and as succinct as possible, and complemented with icons and other visual elements. Using UX copywriting can deliver this.
  • The experience needs to cater for ‘facilitated access’ where service workers assist or access online services on behalf of a rough sleeper who is unable to manage on their own.

“I used to do office work, so I can find my way around the forms and find options.
Service user
Tranby Engagement Hub

Managing accounts and sharing data

Similar to literacy levels, there was a substantial variation in perspectives and preferences relating to privacy and confidentiality. Many rough sleepers openly share personal information in an attempt to improve their chances of getting accommodation or other support or simply because they have accepted they may not have a choice.

“Happy to share anything to help secure accommodation more quickly.
Service user
Y-Shac Crisis Accommodation

Almost universally, we heard that people want to know who is accessing their personal data and, most importantly, nobody wants to repeat the same information – retell their story – over and over. This is not only frustrating but also retraumatising.

We heard concerns from both people with lived experience and service provider staff about signing up for and maintaining accounts, for example forgetting passwords or losing/changing phone numbers and email addresses.

What does this mean for designing an online experience?

  • Choice around login authentication and data sharing needs to be offered to users so the experience meets their needs and preferences.
  • It should be possible to carry out essential tasks without the need to ‘sign up’ for an account.
  • Quick and easy capacity to provide and withdraw information sharing consent.

Maintaining human connection

Homelessness is a very complex human experience and the process of finding accommodation or other support requires human connection. While a digital tool may help in many aspects, it should complement and support human interactions rather than replacing them.

We heard from people sleeping rough that their mobile phones are already critical tools for maintaining communication with services, friends and family by call, text or email. This could be enhanced through good online experiences.

Most people would like the option to speak to someone, in addition to accessing information online. The only people who expressed a preference for completing online forms over speaking with someone were young people.

What does this mean for designing an online experience?

  • Not all processes or tasks can be replicated online – some need to remain face-to-face or over the phone to support people through their most challenging or vulnerable moments.
  • There needs to be an option for an easy hand over to real people over the phone as a complement to the online experience.
  • Users asked for the ability to choose to speak to a trusted person or service, rather than anonymous help lines.

Find out more about the WA Government’s Online Homelessness Services Portal on their website.