A digital salvation for the homeless

From a talk by Chris Holmes, director of Shelter, the charity for the homeless, given at a Labour conference fringe meeting

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The digital revolution opens up huge new opportunities for increased access to information and increased choice for people facing housing difficulties. New technology enables Shelter's clients to retrieve information and advice when and where they need it - but only if they have access. Shelterline is our 24-hour housing advice service, which uses specifically developed technology, which provides round-the-clock access to the local information needed to solve a housing crisis.

The digital revolution opens up huge new opportunities for increased access to information and increased choice for people facing housing difficulties. New technology enables Shelter's clients to retrieve information and advice when and where they need it - but only if they have access. Shelterline is our 24-hour housing advice service, which uses specifically developed technology, which provides round-the-clock access to the local information needed to solve a housing crisis.

For example, Becky, a young mother, recently rang Shelterline late one night from a call-box. She had escaped from her violent partner, who had followed her, and whom our adviser could hear threatening her. We phoned the local police, who turned up and took him away and at the same time found Becky a place in a local refuge. As long as there is access, technology can provide human solutions.

The Government's Social Exclusion Unit found that, currently, a significant proportion of the internet has neither the content nor the language for people on the other side of the so-called digital divide.

We support the Government in its quest to ensure that all job vacancies are on the Web, and hope that homes will find a place there, too. At Shelter, we believe that making content relevant to everyone's lives is essential to transforming take-up.

People have to be motivated to get over what for some is the huge hurdle of using new technology. The Social Exclusion Unit found that the least likely users were those who had had an off-putting experience of education, those for whom English was not a first language, and women. Currently, the majority of users belong to the top socio-economic group. We need to use our experiences of working with government and business to democratise the new economy and ensure that it is open to all.

Shelter is developing Shelter Online to provide housing information through the Web. Shelter Online will provide easy-to-use advice on tenants' rights and other common problems. As more people, particularly children, increasingly use the Web as their first place to look for information, we must make sure that the help they need is there. We are also looking at new ways that people could find a home over the Web. The future of lettings by council and housing associations is going to change radically.

But new technologies can accentuate inequalities. We must change this. Shelter believes government support is essential in backing ideas and initiatives that open up access to the most disadvantaged, thereby tackling social exclusion. In the short term, access issues can be addressed by placing computers in local centres, post offices and libraries. But such access is meaningless if it isn't underpinned by human advice, support and training. Information isn't knowledge, and knowledge isn't understanding.

Ultimately, what we seek is an integrated approach involving both local and central government with the not-for-profit sector. An approach that combines our experience and expertise with a commitment to universal access and universal gain from the new economy. This is the key to tackling social exclusion.

The challenge, then, is to deliver an integrated service. We need to maximise the increased efficiency that online services bring. We need to build on the trust that the public has in us, offering independent advice, finding ways through complex situations, being there when people need face-to-face support.

In conclusion, as not-for-profit organisations, it is essential that we are forward-thinking, that we recognise that the lives of the people we work with are going to change over the next five, 10, 20 years, and that we must make sure our services are still useful and relevant. Business and government need to recognise that we can help them. Together we can improve access and bridge the digital divide.

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