January 17, 2020

Empowering Homeless Youth With Technology

Photo by Cyndi Bemel

Donating phones and laptops aren’t the first things people think of when wanting to give to the homeless. But Heather Wilk realized technology was a necessity and made it a priority to use technology to help homeless teens.

Wilk is the executive director of Straight But Not Narrow (SBNN), a nonprofit founded in 2011 that provides resources to homeless LGBTQ youth. Forty percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, according to Wilk.

“We wanted to be more hands-on,” Wilk told the Journal. “Not just talk about awareness but do something about it and actually help them.”

To this end, SBNN takes donated cellphones and laptops, refurbishes them and gives them to homeless teens and young adults as an incentive to connect with shelters and LGBTQ support centers. SBNN also provides them with tech courses and resume services.

“I think we take for granted the digital world,” Wilk said. “This isn’t a luxury anymore. It’s a necessity to have a phone now. The phones are filled with information [including apps, resources and hot spots] so [teens] will always have a safe place to go to and a number to call if they need.” 

Wilk, 33, said that many of the teens she’s worked with haven’t met someone “like them” until connecting on social media. To date, SBNN has distributed 825 devices and reached more than 35,500 LGBTQ teens all over the country. Among the 12 centers it works with, SBNN has partnered with the Trevor Project and its resources to help bridge the divide for teens who feel they don’t belong. 

“I think we take for granted the digital world. This isn’t a luxury anymore. It’s a necessity to have a phone now.”

“High school is already an alienating place,” Wilk said, “and if you don’t have someone out there looking out for you, to mentor you, you can feel really lonely. Their first real communication that’s safe with someone is through the internet, especially if you are in a rural area. You need the device to connect with others.”

Wilk, once part of the small Jewish population in Oklahoma (in school, she’d play teacher and educate her classmates on the Festival of Lights), knows what it’s like to feel different. 

“I think growing up in Oklahoma as a Jewish person, you immediately felt like an outsider, so I’ve always empathized and clung to people who maybe don’t feel they fit the norm,” she said. “I always loved being able to help out if I can. I think allies are really important. We all need to be allies for one another.” 

The need to supply homeless teens with solar charging portals for phones was one of the most valuables pieces of feedback Wilk received. Since teens on the street rarely have regular access to electrical outlets, they need to be able to use a charging port that generates its own power. 

“I think familiarity and knowledge changes everything,” she said. “Once you are more informed, you will be more accepting and empathetic, and so I [want to] do what we can to get people to understand what’s going on.”

Wilk said her compassion for others comes from her father, Larry. “He puts everyone’s needs before his own. He was always welcoming and grateful, and happy to have any of my friends come over no matter who they are. I think [from] that open-door policy, we learn about other people and then become better people ourselves.”

Read more about our 2019 mensches here.