The wired homeless: Finding shelter through Twitter
“Housing isn't the solution to homelessness. You also need community,” said Mark Horvath.
Founder of InvisiblePeople.tv -- a site of raw, uncut videos of homeless people telling their own stories—Horvath was once homeless himself in 1995. So he’s no small advocate for solving the homelessness problem in the United States, and he believes social media will play no small part in doing so.
Naysayers might argue that if one is homeless, technology should not be something that is affordable or accessible. That technology is in large part a luxury.
But those who are on the street or who are about to be might feel differently.
According to Horvath, there's a rise in the number of homeless people he meets who are on social media platforms, namely Twitter and Facebook. Horvath sees this largely as a positive aspect to their lives, as he senses that the people he meets feel less alone.
“One hundred percent of the sheltered homeless I meet are online and on Facebook. Online is still a human experience, it's just online,” he said.
Rd Plasschaert believes her life was saved by social networking.
Her story is a familiar one, perhaps.
“I had a great paying job at a high-stress law firm. In February 2009, I left for health reasons because I felt I was going to have a heart attack, and I thought no job is worth that. Not knowing that the great crisis was about to happen,” she said.
She thought she could take on temporary work through local temp agencies, but was surprised when the agencies had no work to give. Due to continued health problems, she ended up on disability.
“In August 2010, I knew I was going to be homeless,” she said. “Agencies kept referring me back to the 211 number. I would call 211 and they would say we cannot help you until you are on the streets. I was in this cycle of: we can not provide help until you are actually homeless.”
She started a blog, as an online journal, she says at first in order “just to stay sane.” Through another blogger she was introduced to Twitter. She originally wrote the site off as inane banter. “At first, I thought: This is where people say ‘I’m going to burp.’ I thought it was nothing.”
But partly out of desperation, she decided to try it, and soon began searching for others in her same situation. Within four days of being online, she found Horvath.
She stayed at Path Achieve in Glendale for three months, and was also placed at the Winter Shelter, before becoming housed in an apartment three weeks ago.
Her current housing is sponsored in part by Skip1.org, an organization she also connected with through the microblogging site.
“Twitter is the only reason I have housing,” she said
“It was the only thing that helped. Let me be that blunt. It is 100% the reason I went into a shelter, rather than sleeping on the streets. That’s not true of every woman I met at Winter Shelter. The only reason I didn’t have to sleep outside was because of social media.”
In terms of how she stayed connected, while homeless, Plasschaert said, “The emergency shelter has two computers for people to use from 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., and you could stand in line to use the computer for half an hour at a time. That’s how I got started.”
Through a grant that Horvath wrote, Plasschaert was given an iPod Touch. “Once I had that I could go to the library or Borders or anywhere there was free Wi-Fi, which gave me more ability to connect with people. I built up a lot of homeless friends on Twitter.”
Now Plasschaert has been tapped to teach social media skills to other homeless people.
Through Project Return, she received a grant, and with the organization she is currently developing curriculum, which will include uses of Twitter and Facebook, how to get online, and how to become connected with the homeless community.
Logistically, it isn't always as easy for homeless individuals to stay in contact the way that one might expect to quickly connect with friends who are constantly wired. Horvath said, "They may not be able to get back to you until they get to a library. Still, it’s an important way for them to connect and to find jobs.”
“When I first started Invisible People, I thought that by having homeless people online that service providers would find them and support them. But what's happening is it's homeless people helping other homeless people,” he said.
"With one woman named AnnMarie, I found her on Twitter,” he said. "She was sleeping in an alley in Chicago, but she never felt alone because she had thousands of followers."
-- Lori Kozlowski
Photo: Mark Horvath of Invisible People interviews Heather, a single mother with two daughters, who was living in a homeless shelter in San Jose at the time of the interview. Credit: Kindling Group