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After Jeanne lost her job in 2009, her unemployment payments helped her hang on to her apartment until November 2011. But by last summer, she wanted no more couch-surfing and shelter life with her 12- and 16-year-old kids.
To pull together a deposit and first month’s rent to get out of a shelter, she turned to the website Indiegogo. She netted small contributions toward about $300 and one larger one from someone she knew personally who saw her link to the campaign on Twitter.
Jeanne, who asked that we omit her last name to protect her children’s privacy, also harnesses social media to stay connected with professional contacts in her field, and for activism and friendship.
Her crowdfunding experience wasn’t entirely rosy. “I had two false promises of help that didn’t come, so caution is important, too.”
But her experience underscores how technology has reshaped what it means to be homeless, a trend that has caught our attention since we launched our homelessness quest series.
A homeless person can learn a lot on the street: where and when to get a hot meal, where bathrooms are and when they close, what Dumpsters attract more cans and bottles, where to find a good, hidden place to nap during the day.
But homeless people are just as likely now to know the locations of electrical outlets for charging cell phones and laptops, which are common at day centers, shelters and on the street.
Access to technology helps connect — and reconnect — homeless people with the rest of society. Last Wednesday morning, Bob McElroy popped his head outside the downtown winter tent shelter and told me he could see five people using laptops in the shaded area outside.
“I don’t have a laptop. These guys got a laptop,” said McElroy, who directs the Alpha Project homeless services agency. “Makes them feel more normal. Because they can access the same information that everybody else can.”
|Photo by Sam Hodgson|
|Outside the Alpha Project’s winter homeless tent shelter, Rico Arroyo and Cindy Gagné watch the movie “Willow” on Gagné’s laptop and Arroyo’s makeshift sound system, built out of a cardboard box.|
Liz Hirsch was one of the first people I heard from when we kicked off the series. Hirsch emailed me frequently between December, when she stayed in a shelter for the first time, and February, when she moved into a room in a transitional home meant to help homeless women regain self-sufficiency.
I found it remarkable that one of the people closely monitoring our online effort was someone whose laptop wasn’t plugged in to a permanent home.
Homeless people use computers — their own or public ones at the library and shelters — to search for jobs, look for friends and family on social networking sites and blog.
Many homeless people I’ve met purchase prepaid phone cards and phones at convenience stores. And a free program might make that even more widespread.
A government program for low-income households recently expanded to give free cell phones and 250 minutes and 250 texts a month to people who earn less than $15,000 a year. Previously, the lifeline plan installed landlines for poor households, but the change to mobile phones means homeless people can participate.
In 2010, UC Irvine researchers found technology to be “a powerful but not obvious part of the culture of homelessness” in Los Angeles, contributing to homeless people’s ability to survive and find social community.
While she was in the shelter, Hirsch would wake up and go to Starbucks or other coffee shops to use the internet on her netbook, which she bought at a pawn shop after selling some belongings. She found Voice of San Diego and began to write us.
“We homeless can keep in touch with not just our friends, doctors, police emergency, but the whole world,” Hirsch wrote in one of her emails. “Maybe that makes all the homeless people in the world connected into one community like it never was before.”
Hirsch noticed the electrical outlets at Starbucks and the shelter she stayed at, the Rescue Mission, were a popular and valuable resource for homeless people who needed to charge their devices. I asked her last week how she thinks technology changes being homeless:
Hanging on to the devices can be a challenge. Even Hirsch, who relied on her computer, later pawned the one she first wrote me from. A real estate agent she worked for — the pair connected via email after our series began — bought her a new one.
The devices facilitate connections and access to resources, but they can also complicate a homeless person’s situation. McElroy said he encourages tent residents to charge and use their phones and laptops onsite at the shelter rather than flash it around the streets.
A national story erupted out of last year’s South by Southwest festival, when a group enlisted homeless people to serve as wireless hot spots for the festival’s attendees. The story revealed an interesting intersection between the homelessness and technology, but also sparked discussion about whether the homeless people were being taken advantage of. It appears at least some saw benefits at least in part from the experiment.
Hirsch’s experiences in Starbucks mirror those of Revolution MacInness, a homeless man who sent messages on Twitter about the things he and other homeless people needed. In a 2011 commentary for Huffington Post, MacInnes wrote about the Starbucks cards, glasses and winter boots his Twitter followers pitched in for after he announced the need.
“Being able to access the Internet and tweet with my smart phone, which was paid for by a wonderful friend, while enjoying a warm cup of coffee at Starbucks, was crucial for my survival and eventually helped me end my homelessness,” MacInness wrote.
I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at email@example.com or 619.325.0531.
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