Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
Connecting through social networks can make it easier to be homeless and easier to escape homelessness.
Homeless people have Facebook friends, too. According to a new study from University of Dayton sociologist and criminologist Art Jipson, homeless people are increasingly connected to each other and to non-homeless people through social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter, accessed through cell phones.
Jipson found, through interviews with a relatively small sample of homeless people in the Dayton area, that the homeless are using the sites for their social networking aspects, but also for day-to-day practicalities: finding places to sleep, sources of food and access to services.
Given the relative cheapness of pay-as-you-go cell phones (especially compared with housing costs), it's not surprising to find that an increasing amount of homeless people are using cell phones to access the internet. A study by USC researcher Eric Rice released in December found that 62 percent of homeless youth have cell phones. An earlier study found that 85 percent of homeless youth are frequent internet users, either through cell phones, libraries or youth agencies. This 2009 story from The Washington Post found prevalent cell phone and email use among the homeless in Washington D.C.
Advocates who work with the District's homeless estimate that 30 percent to 45 percent of the people they help have cellphones. A smaller number have e-mail accounts, and some blog to chronicle their lives on the streets.
Homelessness advocacy groups are beginning to recognize how cell phones and internet access can be useful tools for the homeless, and have organized cell phone drives to collect and distribute used phones to the homeless in places like Denver.
Equipped with a cell phone or access to the internet on computers at public libraries, the homeless can more easily access information – and share information with others. But this isn't necessarily some modern-day version of "hobo signs" or carvings, left on the fence posts of houses to communicate whether the homeowners were amenable to helping out or not. The vast majority of homeless people using the internet and social networks aren't homeless for long stretches of time. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, only 18 percent of the homeless population in the U.S. is chronically homeless. So while there may be a fair amount of homeless people using the internet and social networking sites to keep in touch with other homeless people, more are keeping in touch with the non-homeless. It may just be that being able to connect through social networking and media sites makes it both easier to be homeless and easier to escape homelessness.