How Smartphones Throw the Homeless a Lifeline

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How Smartphones Throw the Homeless a Lifeline

People commiserate on social media, but the homeless use Facebook, Twitter and even e-mail to keep life-saving connections.

Millions turn to Facebook to post the upset of their days and the tumult in their personal relationships. In return, they get support and advice from friends and others who can relate. But to the homeless, a simple cell phone can be a vital link to support groups, employment and housing opportunities, and is a way to build a community out of the isolation, ruin and despair that accompanies homelessness.

Why a Mobile Connection Helps

The homeless and smartphones seem like an odd combination, but mobile devices are far from being a tool for recreation or a status symbol. They let them to come out of the shadows, drawing attention to their plight and securing valuable services.

When it comes to making difficult economic choices, cell phones are the last refuge, likely because mobile phones are relatively easy to get, especially when compared to a landline, car, house or job. And connections enabled by mobile devices can give disenfranchised populations a sense of community while they work to rebuild. A cell phone offers a cheap way to communicate, and even a very basic Internet access can connect them to a wealth of information and resources. On a larger scale, a mobile device is a tether between a homeless person and the larger fabric of society, keeping them from falling into the pale and completely in the margins.

The University of Dayton’s Art Jipson documented how the homeless are turning to social media and finding equality, dignity and a way to improve their situation.

Jipson found social media can be a place for the homeless to interact without being judged. As one person said, “No one on the ‘net cares if I didn’t get a shower yesterday or smell some.”

The findings add a dimension to the common perception of social sites like Facebook.

“People think of Facebook as this billion-dollar entity with stock offerings that sells gobs of advertising,” Jipson said. “But, on Facebook, the ‘least of our brothers,’ as it says in the Bible, have equal access to all of Facebook’s offerings and establish a sense of belonging based on more than possessions.”

Many homeless use social media to build support networks, solve practical issues such as where to find their next meal, where to find safe and warm places to sleep and where to find various social services.

The benefits extend to homeless teens navigating dangerous streets for survival. The USC School of Social Work’s study revealed three-in-five homeless teens have cell phones and place a premium on paying for a data plan to stay in touch with others, current or potential employers and to connect to shelter, food and other service providers.

Homeless teens often have an advantage over older counterparts, since they have fewer mental and substance abuse issues to contend with as they struggle to get off the streets. Still, mobile phones offer people of all ages a valuable lifeline to opportunities, suggesting new ways mobile technology can maximize their ability to extend safety nets.

How Social Media Helps

The homeless understand, in a way you and I take for granted, the immense power of mobile phones. Turn-by-turn navigation programs and streaming movies on-the-go are a convenience for most smartphone users, but the devices’ other abilities and most basic functions can soften the blow of learning you’re going to be homeless in a couple of weeks, or needing to find a way to secure a meal for the day.

Homeless bloggers, for instance, are a godsend for those who find themselves in similar circumstances. Those on the brink are increasingly reaching out on Twitter, using homelessness-related hashtags or topics. One name that comes up often is Mark Horvath, who goes by the Twitter handle, @hardlynormal. His dedication to providing a forum for homeless to share resources, advice and tips gives others a much-needed path to navigate their new, scary world.

Social media soldiers like Horvath, who describes himself on Twitter to his 16,000 followers as “just a hardly normal guy trying to navigate through an abnormal world by helping others,” are often inspired in their mission as a result of their own descent into homelessness.

Horvath’s Tweets encourage — “This is going to be a great week. Believe it” — provide humorous motivation — “There’s a fine line between fishing and just standing on the shore like an idiot” — and advocate — “I pray for the day our homeless voice as a consumer on social media gets so loud it shuts down bad services so resources can go to good ones.”

Chicago’s Ann Marie Walsh is doing similar things in Chicago. Walsh established her @padschicago Twitter account after finding herself living in an empty lot, and tweets to her 5,600 followers about jobs, outreach information and even personal stuff like sending out birthday greetings.

“I love all u tweeps. U help keep me sane. I’ve had a lot of #PTSD emotions lately & ur posts help distract me. Sending u all tweet love,” tweeted Walsh recently.

Horvath is redoubling his efforts, moving beyond his Twitter account to start, a place for those new to homelessness and mobile technology to set up an online presence. The site walks newbies through the process of creating a Facebook page, Twitter account, Gmail address and even gives advice about blogging.

The site also gives a bit of etiquette advice, saying, “Remember, social media is a conversation so it’s important to listen. Be yourself and be real, stay positive and respect everyone, and have fun.”

These sites and others, like @bostonhomeless, provide information and links to social services resources, job postings, articles on homeless issues, and announcements about local projects and are gaining steam.

Part of a Future Solution

Providing the homeless with the most influential and effective resources, contacts, and opportunities aids traditional outreach methods, making them more effective and affordable.

Down the road, the trend could transform the delivery of services to distressed populations, creating “virtual case management,” systems or new platforms to interact. Online tools can ease how workers and those needing services communicate by eliminating the challenges of face-to-face meetings. Also, an e-mail blast proves more effective in getting the word out about available resources and seminars.

As state budgets are burdened beyond capacity and neighborhood service centers close, mobile paves outreach connections. Mobile devices beyond phones — like iPods — allow the homeless to stay in contact with social services, streamlining the process for both parties.

The digital transfer of forms, requests, bulletin-boards, rules, and other communications could save hours of legwork and cut much of the bureaucratic red tape, while at the same time help the homeless community pool together to move beyond their current situation.

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