To Seattle’s homeless young people, music players matter

The Cutatune is a music player that fits on your arm like a cuff. To play it, you run a thin rubber stylus through three slots at the top of the device.

“This was interesting to Maria because that was the spot where she most frequently cut,” wrote its designer, a homeless young woman in Seattle. “She was soothed and lost the urge to cut herself.”

The Cutatune does not exist. Neither does the Musical Blanket, the Nicatune, the Music Emote or any of the dozens of imaginary music players that will be featured in “Music is My Life,” an art show set to open Thursday in Molly’s Cafe at the Henry Art Gallery.

But they paint a compelling picture of how much music matters in the lives of homeless teens and young adults — and why.

The show is based on dissertation research by Jill Woelfer, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington’s Information School, who since 2007 has been studying how homeless young people use technology. After conducting a study to see what happened to iPods a group of them had earned by completing a technology-based life skills course she helped teach, Woelfer, a trained musician and former piano teacher, became curious. Even among very few possessions, she noticed, music players stood out.

One Seattle case manager she talked to said the first thing he asks a homeless young person he meets with is whether she has a music player. If she doesn’t, he gives her one. Losing a music player, he told Woelfer, can send a homeless person hurrying back to a shelter even faster than other issues.

Woelfer was walking by the Radio Shack on University Way Northeast when she saw a homeless man rummage through his things and turn to his friend in a panic. He couldn’t find his music player. “This is the only thing that keeps me from doing crack,” he said.

Nine out of every 10 of the 202 homeless people ages 15 to 25 whom Woelfer surveyed here and in Vancouver, B.C., said they had some kind of music player, stocked sometimes with thousands of songs. The players range from the low-end models you can find at a drugstore all the way up to a smartphone. Ninety-six percent said they listened to music every day.

Woelfer asked why they listen. To “calm down or relieve tension/stress,” to “help get through difficult times” and to “get rid of negative feelings or anger” were the top three reasons.

In other words, for emotional control.

Of course, homeless young people are young people first, and that’s already a tough load. But tech plays a different role when young lives are lived outside the relative stability of a home.

Woelfer said she’s never met a homeless young person who did not maintain a social-networking profile. More than a social pastime or a distraction, sites like Facebook are often the strongest link they have to people who love them.

She spoke with a young woman who was locked in an abandoned house by an abusive boyfriend and couldn’t post on Facebook for a while. When she found a way out, the first place she went wasn’t to the police, but to the library. There, she logged onto Facebook to let her family know she was alive. They had already contacted police, worried at not having heard from her.

Woelfer saw one woman cry while she filled out the music survey, and she told her it was all right to stop. But the woman insisted she wanted to move on to the next part of the study — the design exercise. That’s where participants were asked to design music players that could help someone experiencing homelessness, then draw the device and write a story about how it would be used. The woman felt much better as she designed her device. She wore long sleeves all the way to the base of her hands.

She would draw the Cutatune.

Woelfer began to study how technology can help homeless people after a popular conference on computer-human interaction assigned homelessness as a competition research theme. Woelfer submitted a paper that argued the exercise was unethical. It didn’t give researchers enough time to become familiar enough with the complexities of the topic to do work that would matter. The paper was rejected, but Woelfer found her cause.

Last year, she was awarded the University of Washington’s Graduate School Medal for academic expertise and social awareness.

Four homeless young people joined homeless-shelter staff, business leaders and UW students and alumni in organizing the “Music is My Life” project. Eighteen music-player drawings and stories will be on display at Molly’s Cafe from Thursday until Aug. 29. The entire collection of 129 designs is to be online soon on the project website.

In her research, Woelfer also asked Seattle homeless young people to list their favorite songs. Their responses were as diverse as their experiences. Woelfer created a playlist of the songs on YouTube.

Story by Mónica Guzmán, whose column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times.