Homeless stay connected in virtual community

Posted on January 27th, by Sean Cononie in Uncategorized. No Comments

Homeless stay connected in virtual community

January 26, 2013|By Johnny Diaz, Sun Sentinel

At times during her day, Daletha Brown feels like any typical 23-year-old.

She catches the bus to Broward College for class. She calls or sends texts on her smart phone. She boots up her laptop to log into Facebook where her profile page states that she lives in “Hollywood, Florida.”

But many of her 173 online friends probably don’t know she’s homeless.

“People are shocked when I tell them,” Brown said from the Homeless Voice shelter in Hollywood where she collected some bottles of shampoo and soap earlier this week. “I don’t tell them until I know I can trust them. They are shocked at first because you don’t normally see a homeless person going to college.”

Or posting on social media.

Whether they’re in shelters or on the streets, some of South Florida’s homeless say they’ve found a cyber home and a sense of belonging and community through social media.

They log into their accounts so their friends and family can keep track of their whereabouts. They share information on where to find shelter and a shower.

Mostly though, these homeless folks find they can escape and temporarily forget that they’re homeless through Facebook, Twitter and other online social networks.

“They are still trying to maintain certain parts of their life,” said Mike Long, chief development officer at the Broward Partnership for the Homeless in Fort Lauderdale, which has a computer lab with 30 monitors.

The proliferation of cellphones and smart phones also has made it easier for the homeless to stay plugged in. The devices help them look for jobs and social services while allowing them to stay connected to friends and loved ones.

“Having a cellphone can give them at least a little bit of access of what we consider social media or social norms,” Long said. “I do believe the cellphones are important, social media as a whole is important especially if they are teenagers … They do their best to avoid getting in a conversation of where-do-you-live-kind-of-thing.”

Chris McNeil lives with her 16-year-old son at The Lord’s Place family shelter in West Palm Beach, where she is training to become a chef. Her son encouraged her to create a Facebook account as a social outlet.

A self-described recovering opiate, cocaine and alcohol addict, she uses Facebook to connect with other recovering homeless people and to share homeless-related news from her native Washington, D.C.

You don’t know what somebody is going to say to help you get through the day,” she said of the 38 friends on her page. “I have friends that I am talking to that kind of disowned me 20 years ago because of my life choices. Now we are friends because of Facebook. It’s a motivating thing.”

Mark Targett, co-director at Homeless Voice in Hollywood, agreed, adding that social media can help bring a sense of normalcy to transient lives.

“It may be the only time they feel a part of society without being looked at differently because of their living situation. It’s a way of escape,” said Targett, who sees clients arrive with laptops and Android smart phones. On Facebook, he has friended some of the 182 clients in this crowded and dank two-story facility off North Federal Highway.

As he scrolls down his own iPhone, Targett rattles off some of their recent updates: how they answer quizzes on the New England Patriots, play Farmville or wish one another Happy New Year.

“Just normal stuff that you would kind of see on anyone’s account, just like we do,” Targett added.

Websites also have emerged to help people become social media savvy. One, called WeAreVisible.com, provides tutorials on how to use Facebook and Twitter.

Yet some people may ask: How can a homeless person afford cellphones or even smart phones? Where do they find Internet connections?

“The stigma of carrying a smart phone or cellphone when you’re homeless pisses the public off a great deal,” said Sean Cononie, who runs Homeless Voice. “They use the cellphone for safety. It’s also a good way to look for a job.”

Some qualify for a free cellphone and up to 250 minutes a month through the government’s Lifeline Wireless program, which is associated with TracFone’s Safelink Wireless and Virgin Mobile’s Assurance Wireless.

Others carry phones they owned prior to plunging into poverty. A friend or relative may pay the service.

For free Internet access, they visit McDonald’s, Starbuck’s, Dunkin’ Donuts or a library.

For power, they recharge at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, 7-Eleven stores and electric outlets found on lamp posts along the New River. And of course, there are the homeless shelters themselves.

Merritt Thomas shares a Dell laptop with a friend at the Homeless Voice. During the day, he helps gather clothing donations. But he’s also checking his Facebook for updates from his 254 friends, some from his native Jacksonville.

“I get to keep in touch with a lot of people from home,” said Thomas, 52, who has been homeless since 2004 since moving to South Florida. He said he receives monthly disability checks for chronic back issues.

On Facebook, he also enjoys reading posts from gay political organizations and President Barack Obama. And, “I also get updates from the Kardashians. They are bourgeois,” he said with a grin.

As she visited a sick friend at the shelter one afternoon, Brown, the college student, recalled why she joined Facebook — to stay in touch with her sister who lives in Vero Beach and high school friends she had lost track of. Her sister, who has two young kids, pays for her Blackberry service.

She described her story this way: She was in foster care since she was 5 years old and then adopted at 16.

“My adopted mom told me I had to move out at 18,” recalled Brown, who found help at CovenantHouse Florida in Fort Lauderdale, a youth homeless shelter. A year later, she arrived at Homeless Voice. She now lives in one of the shelter’s satellite properties.

In 2009, she was featured in a New York Times article about homeless couples tying the knot. At a small ceremony at ArtsPark in Hollywood, she married a unemployed cook she had met at the shelter. The couple divorced last year.

At night, Brown logs into her Facebook page, which captures a sense of home: happy photos of her hugging her new boyfriend and nephew and niece.

She also uses the laptop to search for work.

“It’s hard when you have a homeless address on your application. People think ‘Oh, the homeless are lazy or they’re on drugs,’ which is not true. A lot of people know this address as a homeless shelter.”

With help from grants and financial aid, she’s studying at Broward College. She wants to be a nurse.

On Facebook, she posted that she’s planning to graduate this year.

“I don’t want to be homeless forever.”

Staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.

johnnydiaz@tribune.com or 954-356-4939


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