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Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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Access denied by Mat Amp

June 01 2022

Drawing on his own experience of homelessness and feeling disconnected to the wider world, deputy editor Mat Amp outlines the need for free, open access to the internet for all

When the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) announced its digital strategy in 2012, they declared they were going to push their service into the 21st century.

“Our working-age users in particular need to be confident online to compete in the modern labour market. Many jobs are now only advertised online and most vacancies require digital skills, putting those who are digitally excluded at a disadvantage.” Trumpeted the press release.

But many of us still didn’t have those skills by the time the DWP ripped the public use phones out their job centres in 2014. To add insult, they introduced a premium line 0800 number as the only means of contacting a human being, which had severe consequences for some of us.

After losing my own home around this time, I moved into a friend’s spare room. My rent was staving off a repossession order on his flat – at least it was until I was sanctioned for being two minutes late to sign on.

After my giro didn’t turn up in my account, I fed 18 quid’s worth of shrapnel into a public pay phone whilst waiting for contact with a human being. In the past that issue would have been resolved there and then but instead I was made to wait for a decision. In the meantime, my rent was suspended, my friend defaulted on his mortgage and a repossession order was triggered on his flat. He lost his home, and I became homeless.

At the time, it seemed everyone in the world was increasing their online presence as my actual presence was evaporating. I became numb to cope with the emotional torment – a stumbling, stuttering, insecure version of myself, groping around for a crumb of self-belief in a torrent of rage, despair and insecurity.  

As my days on the street continued into the winter, I started to get really tired but it wasn’t until later that I discovered that I had developed severe anaemia as the result of a diet that consisted mainly of heroin and very little else. It was kind of funny when you consider that, along with a couple of mates, I was stealing 120 quid’s worth of red meat a day and selling it to pensioners in the local pub.

Pensioners loving their meat is something I learned from being homeless, paying 60p on the pound for fresh beef, hot off the shelves. If I’d have managed to eat one of those steaks a week it would have probably staved off the anaemia. There was no deficiency of irony in my iron deficiency, you could say.

It’s like the frontal lobotomy remix of Jimmy Cliff’s classic I can see clearly now my brain has gone. As I became more disconnected from mainstream life, I would tell myself that it was what I wanted. Admitting otherwise would have given me an aneurysm.

I began to accept this new reality because I had become completely disconnected by this point. I had an extortionate pay-as-you-go shitty ten quid burner phone that had the capacity to store no more than 10 40-word texts at a time. I had no access to the net by any means and the shame I felt at the situation I was in meant I stayed away from my real friends in the real world.

To find my way into any sort of recovery I needed a smartphone and a decent data package. Without this essential tool of modern life, any bridge to recovery from the unholy triumvirate of addiction, mental health issues and homelessness was effectively burnt.

A decent internet connection should no longer be a privilege in countries that are this far into the technical revolution. Everyone should be given the hardware and data to access the internet with training for adults made freely available. This idea was forced into the public consciousness during the pandemic.

Song Bac Toh writes in Forbes: “As hard as the pandemic has been for many, imagine trying to survive it without internet access. When access to information is vital [to stay alive]… it puts new emphasis on the importance of the internet and staying connected… all of this means that those without internet access are significantly disadvantaged, similar to not having access to electricity in times gone by.”

For people experiencing homelessness, access to information was a matter of survival long before the pandemic and will continue to be once the Covid-19 dust has settled. Benefit applications, where to get a meal, opportunities, and news.

If you don’t feel connected it becomes harder and harder to recover as you drift to the margins.

And when I get on my soap box and start banging on about the importance of ensuring that people experiencing homeless have access to the internet, it goes way deeper than just practical information. The internet also gives people access to news, knowledge, and culture. If you know what is going on in the world you are more likely to find your way back to it.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that: “Everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in the scientific advancement of its benefits.”

For those people who can’t afford to go to live gigs, the theatre or the cinema, the internet offers a massive window to the cultural world and one that costs relatively little to access. With so much information and culture freely available online we should be giving everybody access to the internet as an inalienable right.

It would cost relatively very little in the short term to make sure that people experiencing financial hardship have access to a smartphone and the internet to stop us drifting further towards the margins. In the long run it would save a fortune.

It is a testimony to the stubborn nature of humans that instead we cling to blatant misinformation and allow punitive austerity measures that keep the poorest of us disconnected.