Supporting people experiencing homelessness

100% Digital Leeds are working with Leeds partners supporting people experiencing homelessness to explore, develop, and implement digital inclusion interventions that meet the needs of homeless communities. 

Understanding the uniquely complex barriers faced by people experiencing homelessness

In late 2021 key partners from the third sector, NHS, and Leeds City Council were brought together to map the needs of the various communities experiencing different forms of homelessness and lacking reliable accommodation. By pooling their knowledge and experience of the needs of the community with 100% Digital Leeds’ knowledge of digital exclusion the group were able to form a better understanding of the uniquely complex barriers to digital inclusion faced by this community:

  • Lacking connectivity: not having a place to stay leaves people unable to reliably connect to wifi, without the address or bank account needed to get a phone and data contract, and without a way to keep equipment safely stored and charged. Digital equipment may be easily broken, lost, stolen, or sold. 
  • Motivation barriers: people with lifestyles facing multiple and complex issues such as those struggling with addiction and experiencing street homelessness may be in survival mode, meaning the digital inclusion motivators often seen with other communities, such as better health or maintaining family connections, may not apply.
  • Communication barriers: literacy and numeracy issues are common and some groups face language and other communication barriers.
  • Stigmatisation: past negative experiences can leave people unable to access or feeling unwelcome at the usual places people can go to get online for free, such as libraries and other council or community buildings, and many generic or universal support services aren’t trusted.
  • Crisis: accessing services may often be avoided until a crisis situation, meaning physical and mental health issues may often go undiagnosed or without proper treatment.

Understanding the key to a successful digital inclusion intervention

The complexity of the situation meant partners expressed concern about ensuring the right approach to digital inclusion support was taken from the beginning, flagging the risk of digital being an enabler for negative patterns of behaviour that may exacerbate the situation of an already vulnerable person. 

To minimise this risk and maximise the likelihood of a successful intervention the network recognised that any potential digital inclusion intervention needed to be:

  • Trusted: delivered in a place and by a person that the homeless person knows, trusts, and who makes them feel safe.
  • Specialist: delivered by a person who understands the wide range of potential issues that could be affecting a homeless person and how to take these into account.
  • Person-centred: delivered in a way that takes into account the holistic needs of the individual beneficiary, both in terms of barriers and potential motivations.
  • Positive: delivered by those who want to help, framing digital inclusion as an enabler for people to improve their situation.
  • Ongoing: delivered as part of an ongoing supportive relationship rather than a one-off intervention.

Using the above characteristics four key third sector partners well established within the homeless community were identified to work closely with 100% Digital Leeds to design a bespoke intervention using a strengths-based approach that would embed digital inclusion support into the organisation’s core service offer.

Developing and trialling bespoke interventions with a range of key partners

St Anne’s, Barca, Simon On The Streets, and Our Way Leeds were identified as four key third sector partners to lead exploratory projects that could help us to understand the best approaches to take forward. They were chosen for their experience of and expertise in working with people experiencing homelessness, existing trusted relationships with people experiencing homelessness, and established person-centred approach to supporting people experiencing homelessness in Leeds. Each organisation has a different service user group within the homeless community and a different core offer, supporting the exploration of a range of approaches and opportunities.

Learning from Simon Scotland’s Get Connected 100 project, which had gifted smartphones with free data as a key enabler, Hubbub’s Community Calling scheme was used to gift smartphones and data to beneficiaries identified by each of the organisations.

Each of the partner organisations was supported by 100% Digital Leeds to understand the digital inclusion needs of their service users and potential support interventions that could be taken by the organisation.  Each developed their own unique approach to supporting the digital inclusion of their service users, utilising organisational knowledge and assets, and using the Community Calling smartphones as the basis of a pilot scheme to trial the approach, establish best practice, and measure potential outcomes. 

St Anne’s

St Anne’s Resource Centre is a homelessness centre with an open door policy, working with people who are homeless, rough sleeping or vulnerably-housed. The centre is often the first point of contact for those at risk of homelessness where people can have a safe, discretionary place to form relationships with staff, and they support some of those who have the most complex needs and who are the most excluded from other services. St Anne’s has been supporting homeless communities in Leeds for fifty years and, when talking to other services, were consistently named as the place people experiencing homelessness felt safe and able to access help and support. 

St Anne’s are very well-placed to reach people experiencing homelessness and to engage with other services supporting the same communities. Before working with 100% Digital Leeds they were well-versed in supporting the digital inclusion of homeless communities with on-site resources, making the most of the centre’s wifi, public PC access, and staff devices to support service users to access essential online services and other tools and technology to support their wider wellbeing. The organisation’s reputation and reach within their sector meant they were able to quickly gift a large number of smartphones, directly to their service users and via partners like Simon On The Streets and Beacon. They set out to take a selective approach to gifting, offering a smartphone to those already known to the organisation so that individual need and risk could be taken into account and person-centred support offered. However, because of their established open door policy and reputation for offering services without judgement or discrimination, demand for smartphones was high and people who were not well-known to the organisation expected to be gifted devices. Staff were inundated, subjected to manipulation, and felt pressured to provide smartphones to those who asked. As a result, while many of the gifted smartphones went to those who went on to use the devices and connectivity to secure housing, connect with their families, and manage their mental health, some were sold for cash. 

Due to their commitment to supporting people experiencing homelessness without discrimination and the resulting risk of the scheme having a negative effect on staff wellbeing as well as that of some service users – concerns that monies raised from sales of smartphones were being used to fund addiction or that those who have been gifted smartphone are at a greater risk of being mugged –  St Anne’s were quick to decide to stop gifting equipment and moved back to supporting service users to use digital tools and services in-house. 100% Digital Leeds will continue to work with them to develop this side of their service as well as create a referral pathway to signpost those who might benefit from more digital inclusion support to other services that are able to take a more selective approach.

A case study from St Anne’s

RM has led a life of trauma and chaos. His past has negatively affected his mental health and he struggles to control his emotions and temper. As a result he has had frequent incidents at St Anne’s when he has been verbally abusive and physically threatening to staff and other service users. Staff had supported him to access music using shared equipment and building wifi at St Anne’s and found this had helped him to calm himself. After realising he could use music to self-manage RM was given a Community Calling smartphone in December 2021 to access tools that help him de-escalate and manage his emotions, such as listening to music and watching films. He has since been placed in temporary accommodation and been able to access entertainment media at home on his phone has helped him manage his mental health and stay home and ‘out of trouble’. Since being gifted the smartphone RM has spent more time at home and St Anne’s have seen him involved in fewer incidents. 

Simon on the Streets

Simon on the Streets delivers outreach on the streets to the homeless community and those that are most vulnerable in Leeds. They were introduced into the pilot by St Anne’s, who recognised their importance as an organisation, particularly in supporting people with no recourse to public funds who were gifted Community Calling smartphones.

This group are less likely to have the multiple complex needs faced by some people experiencing homelessness, such as substance misuse and mental health issues, but are particularly likely to struggle with connectivity as, if unable to work, they are easily left with no income. The beneficiaries were identified by Outreach Workers from their existing caseload as those who would immediately benefit from improved connectivity and were at low risk of being adversely affected by being given access. 

Simon on the Streets found the ability to gift smartphones of particular use because all of their support work takes place on the streets or in service user temporary accommodation, the organisation not having a public centre where they can invite service users to visit and use wifi and digital equipment. Without being able to gift a smartphone, not having a site or public equipment leaves Outreach Workers offering service users the use of their own work smartphones to get online and complete online transactions, which isn’t ideal. 100% Digital Leeds will continue working with Simon on the Streets to explore other options for improving their digital inclusion support offer, such as Outreach Workers having access to tablets with data to use alongside clients.

Barca Housing Navigators

Barca Housing Navigators intensively support people with an established history of street homelessness and street begging who are recently in a tenancy or close to getting one. They holistically support people in their recovery to maintain their accommodation and independence and avoid returning to the street. The Housing Navigators take a person-centred holistic approach to supporting the people they work with, all of whom have multiple and complex needs. Members of the team have a caseload that allows them to support people intensively and for as long as needed to address their long-term goals and complex challenges that have led to them losing tenancies in the past.

The team included digital inclusion needs assessments and support into their existing practices and embraced digital inclusion as an enabler for the person to achieve their personal goals. To ensure that potential risks and the right way to successfully progress are properly understood, each proposed gifting of a smartphone is considered on a case-by-case basis by multiple team members and agreed alongside an informal digital inclusion support plan. 

Barca’s selective, risk-averse, and intensively supportive approach, alongside the fact that the team supports people that have demonstrated a commitment to finding a way out of homelessness, has meant the organisation has gifted a smaller amount of smartphones but each gifting has had a positive impact and the device and data used to support independence, resilience, and wellbeing.

A case study from Barca

Person 1 is a 34-year-old male who has been in and out of prison for most of his adult life. He was released from prison in November and gifted a Community Calling smartphone by Barca in December 2021. The device has allowed him to get online without having to visit the library or Jobcentre meaning he could more regularly and proactively check his emails. He has been able to apply for a budget advance through Department of Work and Pensions, find and secure housing, and complete a Peer Mentor course. Not having to rely on Pay As You Go calls and data has allowed him to reconnect with and regularly contact his family and support services, allowing him to rebuild and maintain a positive support network including detoxing from methadone, meeting Probation requirements, and avoiding reoffending, all of which have allowed him to stay out of prison for the longest period of his adult life.

Our Way Leeds

Our Way Leeds (OWL) provides support and accommodation to young people aged between 16 and 25 years of age at risk of homelessness. OWL is a consortium for young people’s services across the city, including Gipsil, Foundation, and Turning Lives Around. They work to prevent homelessness by providing advice on housing and supporting young people to  enable them to live independently. They have emergency accommodation, provide supported tenancies in the community, and support clients in their own homes. OWL Support Workers offer intensive support for as long as necessary, working with clients on practical issues such as housing, benefits, and mental health. Clients generally have access to some sort of accommodation – often temporary or sofa surfing – rather than being street homeless.

OWL Support Workers address digital inclusion as part of their existing person-centred holistic service user needs assessments. As they have ongoing, long-term relationships with their clients the staff have a deep understanding of the needs of the people they work with and how being digitally included could enable them to reach their goals. They’re also aware of any potential risks and dynamic risk assessment is part of their general practice. 

OWL were given 25 Community Calling smartphones to gift to clients across the consortium. They have been gifted to clients needing devices and connectivity to manage their Universal Credit, engage with online health services such as booking appointments with their GP, and maintain relationships with their support networks. 

The need for emergency accomodation to avoid street homelessness means OWL clients are often housed in the next available property which could be anywhere in the city. Clients can find themselves placed far away from their friends and family leaving them isolated. Having a smartphone and connectivity has allowed beneficiaries to stay in touch with the people they care about as well as being able to check in with their Support Worker. Many of those gifted a smartphone had previously found it difficult to engage with and maintain contact with other support services, having no way for services to contact them. Having access to a device and connectivity has allowed clients to empower themselves and take control of their appointments, enabling their independence and freeing up the time of Support Workers.  All of the smartphones have been retained and valued by beneficiaries and all have found having the equipment and connectivity has positively enabled them to reach their goals.

A case study from OWL

Person A is a female client in her late teens. She has found living alone has adversely affected her mental health. She is still in touch with her mum, who has offered support but has her own issues. Having the smartphone has allowed the client to stay connected with her Support Worker, reaching out for support when her mental health is low. Being able to call her Support Worker for a chat, just to check in and discuss her day, means the client feels connected to people and helps her to know someone is there for her.


Working with St Anne’s, Simon on the Streets, Barca, and Our Way Leeds has given us a better understanding of what is needed to successfully support the digital inclusion of people experiencing homelessness. 

Balancing potential benefit and risk

While we have repeatedly evidenced that, for the right person, digital is an enabler that can be used to engage with tools and services that can help a person out of homelessness, digital can also enable negative behaviour and exacerbate already damaging situations. While this was flagged by partners early on in discussions, developing interventions in practice has further confirmed that this is a risk that needs to be carefully considered and managed on a case-by-case basis.

Custom, strengths-based interventions

While developing this work in practice confirmed that interventions supporting the digital inclusion of people experiencing homelessness should share identified characteristics – delivered by organisations that: specialise in supporting people experiencing homelessness; have an existing relationship with homeless communities and are trusted by them; take a person-centred approach and offer ongoing support – it also reaffirmed that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that can be adopted by any homelessness organisation. Each organisation must develop a custom approach based on the strengths of their organisation and the needs of their particular service users. Those organisations supporting people already committed to leaving behind negative behaviours and finding a way out of homelessness can offer different support to those organisations supporting people who might be at their most vulnerable, but both must offer the right support for people using their services.

Partnering as a network 

We also recognise that while a person must be supported according to their current needs and situation, a person’s needs, situation, and risk of negative behaviour will change over time. By collaborating to take a systematic approach to digital inclusion and developing referral pathways between partners supporting the same community of interest we can ensure that people can engage with the right digital inclusion support for them, whatever their situation.

Next steps

  • Share learning: 100% Digital Leeds will reconvene with partners to share the above learning and explore opportunities for working with more services supporting people experiencing homelessness to embed digital inclusion within their offer.
  • Support the development of bespoke interventions: 100% Digital Leeds will continue to work with partners on a one-to-one basis to develop custom digital inclusion interventions that build on the strengths of the organisation and are embedded within their core offer.  
  • Partnering as a network: 100% Digital Leeds will explore the possibility of partners meeting as a formal digital inclusion network to continue sharing learning and to develop referral pathways, or look at existing networks and referral pathways that could be better utilised to progress the digital inclusion agenda. 
  • Explore more sustainable solutions to providing connectivity: while device and data gifting is clearly a powerful enabler to the digital inclusion of many people experiencing homelessness, the Community Calling scheme is a temporary solution and so more sustainable ways of supporting individual and portable connectivity will be explored. This will include looking into improving the capacity of Outreach Workers to provide digital inclusion support by providing them with more suitable devices.

Further selected case-studies 

SG is an Eastern European man sleeping rough and known to St Anne’s. After a conversation about his circumstances with a St Anne’s member of staff at the City Square Feed food provision in December 2021 he was advised to visit St Anne’s to be gifted a Community Calling smartphone. He used the smartphone and data to find and reconnect with his family via social media. He is now reunited with his family and living with his brother.

CH was an active heroin user and a St Anne’s service user for a number of years who had struggled to find and maintain secure accommodation. In March 2020 he was placed in temporary emergency accommodation and supported to engage with Forward Leeds. Saviour Trust were able to find him accommodation with a friend but that relationship broke down. In December 2021 CH visited St Anne’s to use their PCs to bid on Housing Leeds properties. He was offered a Community Calling smartphone with data to allow him to spend more time active bidding and was able to secure a property. He no longer presents at St Anne’s but is often seen around town by staff and always stops to show them he’s still got his phone and to thank them.

KB and JB came to St Anne’s for support ending a tenancy. Having no access to a phone meant they needed to spend a lot of time at St Anne’s waiting for calls from Leeds Housing Options, who had no other way to contact them. They were gifted smartphones in December 2021 and this has allowed them to be less reliant on St Anne’s staff and more independent in managing their situation. They have now both been placed in temporary accommodation. KB struggles with low mood and is thankful to be able to use the phone and data to watch a film or listen to music, both of which help him manage his mental health.

Person 2 is a recent prison leaver who is being supported by Barca. He has spent a lot of his life in and out of jail for petty crime to fund a drug habit. The device gifted by Community Calling is the first smartphone he has ever owned. He is still building his digital skills and confidence but having a device has allowed him to stay in touch with his dad and use mapping apps to navigate between appointments allowing him to rebuild his life outside of prison. Having a smartphone has allowed him to keep himself busy and productive which helps him avoid falling back into bad habits. He enjoys searching charity shops for bargains and uses the smartphone to research Makers’ Marks and other signs to determine whether an item he’s found can be re-sold for a profit. This is an activity his dad helps him with, helping them to strengthen their relationship.

Published 21/3/22