Technology and the Adult Homeless Population

I recently volunteered in a short computer education program for a small group of homeless people at a local shelter.  I was to teach users various introductory computer skills.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the students.  Also, I’m a computer programmer, not a teacher, so I wasn’t sure how helpful I would be to them.  I also knew several of the users faced not only homelessness but also prior incarcerations and or mental illness.

I am posting the results of this program to not only raise awareness of the needs of the homeless but to also highlight some of the challenges I saw them struggling with in class and some of the wonderful surprises I noted during my classroom time with these men and women.

The protocol was men on one side of the room and women on the other; they ranged in ages from 30 years to 60 years of age.  There were about twelve students, two instructors and one monitor who stayed in another room close by.  The class was one hour in length once per week in a lab of computers with keyboard, mice and an overhead projector/computer for the instructor.  One instructor stayed at the projector to demonstrate various computer tasks and the other instructor moved about the room.

Initial student behavior was a heart breaker for me:  many of them would not make eye contact, they would speak softly – unsure of themselves and their words.  Normally this behavior is something I witness in children who are shy and are learning something new but to see this behavior in adults was very difficult.  Their behavior was a reminder to me of how hard things have been for them.  Thankfully this behavior improved as they learned new tasks.  By the end of the first class I was seeing smiles, excitement about learning and many questions were being asked.

Some of the topics we covered that the students showed great interest in:

  • Understanding the keyboard (how to make capital letters), the space bar functionality and the purpose of the number keypad.
  • Understanding the desktop.
  • Understanding search engines and navigating the web. Tips on identifying malicious sites and false news information.
  • The process of Opening, saving, closing, and creating new Microsoft Word documents.
  • How to password protect a Microsoft Word document. The students discussed lack of privacy openly at this point, really emphasizing a desire for privacy.
  • How to manage images (getting them from one device over to another, getting them from an application like Facebook down to a device, and emailing them to others).

Some of the problems they face in daily life regarding technology:

  • Several of the students mentioned difficulty in accessing email programs from public terminals.  They noted that not all of the libraries and public technology centers in town allow users to access the same email programs; some email programs are blocked at some locations and not blocked at other locations.  In turn they end up frustrated and are unable to access their email for long periods of time resulting in them often forgetting passwords and having to set up new email accounts and then they of course have lost their contact lists from their prior email account.
  • Lack of frequent access to devices and or computers for learning and general use.   When they do have access, they are often alone, without any technological assistance for times when they encounter issues such as not being able to access email.

Spending time with these men and women is something I will never forget, I hope I was able to help them as much as they helped me.

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