Americans share a common experience when moving into a new home: searching for and subscribing to home Internet. However, many people in the United States lack a prerequisite for this experience – a home address. 

Homelessness is on the rise. According to the most recent report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), “580,466 people experienced homelessness in the United States on a single night in 2020.” That number revealed an increase of over 12,000 people, likely a result in part of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn. 

The population of unhoused people in the United States can vary widely depending on the day. Often those most at risk of experiencing homelessness face financial hardship, employment instability, or a variety of other personal factors. HUD’s report found three statistics that should inform connectivity strategies nationwide:

  1. After six years of decline, homelessness has been on the rise with year-over-year increases since 2017.
  2. Homelessness for “family households” did not decline for the first time in 10 years
  3. The number of people experiencing chronic homelessness surpassed 100,000 for the first time since 2011.

Residents who struggle with housing insecurity may also face challenges to get online. When someone is experiencing either chronic or temporary homelessness, they cannot access digital tools and broadband subscriptions through traditional avenues like their housed peers. Programs currently exist for low-income populations that may face homelessness, such as the Emergency Broadband Benefit (“EBB”) and Lifeline programs. 

The Federal Communications Commission’s EBB program was designed to help families and households struggling to afford internet service during the COVID-19. Unhoused individuals can list a descriptive address or other mailing address to receive a benefit for mobile data usage on their smartphone. Over six million households receive the EBB. However, more must be done to increase awareness and support enrollment.

Another startling statistic about homelessness across the country is that the number of family households experiencing homelessness did not decline for the first time in a decade. While this means that families were mainly able to weather the storm during COVID-19, the stability may not last. Several actions throughout the pandemic provided immediate and semi-long-term relief to families, especially those with school-aged children. Notably, these families received utility relief, increased child tax credits, and substantial nutritional assistance

Children in public schools also received significant connectivity assistance. Next Century Cities highlighted some of these programs throughout 2020 and 2021. Many families face a higher level of more complicated needs. Not only are they reliant on social programs to support adults, but they must ensure that constantly developing children are educated, fed, clothed, and more. 

Luckily, HUD found that throughout 2020, 9 in 10 unhoused families were counted in sheltered locations. Often supported by local governments, Shelters can serve as information hubs for families looking to receive support. Through these shelters, which we should consider anchor institutions, families can receive guidance, safe and secure computing access, and temporary internet access. Local, state, federal, and tribal leaders must recognize the critical importance of shelters in reaching some of our country’s most vulnerable and disconnected communities. 

While hundreds of thousands of Americans experience episodic, transitional, or hidden homelessness, there is a particularly vulnerable and acute population that experiences “chronic homelessness.” This specific community represents the people who have repeatedly or for extended periods experienced being unhoused. The definition of “chronic homelessness” is essential in determining one’s eligibility for permanent housing assistance. Permanent housing can provide a safe and sustainable space for someone to receive broadband services and use internet-enabled devices while also connecting with skilled and informed social service professionals.

HUD’s new definition also includes people who have been homeless and lived in “a place not meant for human habitation” for a time, adding up to a year. For these people, a lack of a mailing address, stable support systems, and regular access to digital tools can mean that they are permanently falling into the digital divide. 

Most importantly, those experiencing chronic homelessness face another “disabling condition” that can include mental health challenges, substance abuse, or physical disabilities. As a result, residents face greater difficulty in locating and maintaining support and access to connectivity resources. Local and state governments must work together to identify those experiencing chronic homelessness within their communities and ensure they receive targeted intervention to get connected. 

Residents with disabling conditions can benefit greatly from remote telehealth services, even after the COVID-19 pandemic, as connecting with mental health, substance abuse, and other specialists can remain extremely difficult, if not impossible. Municipalities can activate pre-existing and robust networks of resources and anchor institutions to connect unhoused people to achieve this goal.

As communities revisit post-COVID broadband strategies, residents who do not have permanent addresses may still have pressing connectivity needs. Solutions need to address the dynamic nature of being unhoused, the impermanent set of circumstances a person faces, and the belief that mobile connectivity is not an adequate, permanent solution to the digital divide. 

Local leaders can utilize existing social services networks in homeless shelters, libraries, schools, and other anchor institutions to understand their unhoused populations better. Allocating resources and developing effective strategies to support unhoused people getting online, receiving proper digital training, and finding economic opportunities depends on having a firm understanding of a multifaceted problem.

Across the country, 580,466 people spent a night in 2020 without a permanent address. They worked hard to meet their nutritional needs, connect with healthcare providers, and receive an education, often having to do so without the ability to get online. In an increasingly digital world, ensuring access to a safe and reliable broadband connection can become as equally crucial for success as a permanent home.