positive contact! (helps the homeless)

How Facebook may be helping the homeless:

Jipson found, through interviews with a relatively small sample of homeless people in the Dayton area, that the homeless are using [Facebook and Twitter] for their social networking aspects, but also for day-to-day practicalities: finding places to sleep, sources of food and access to services….

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….

[T]his 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…. 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.

This makes intuitive sense to me. The less you slip out of sight, and the more you are able to remind your social network that you still exist, the more likely you’ll be able to tap that network to help you escape the downward spiral.


Meanwhile: is this helping?

Mark McDonald, a spokesman for Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, told USA Today that [the city’s ban on feeding the homeless] was intended to give more dignity to homeless people and to force them indoors, where they could be exposed to other health services.

“This is about an activity on city park land that the mayor thinks is better suited elsewhere,” he told USA Today. “We think it’s a much more dignified place to be in an indoor sit-down restaurant. … The overarching policy goal of the mayor is based on a belief that hungry people deserve something more than getting a ham sandwich out on the side of the street.”

I guess that’s great if everybody you were feeding before actually gets to move to an indoor “restaurant.” But what if a significant percentage simply go back to foraging in the trash? Is that “dignified”? Part of the work of outreach programs is getting outside and going to where the homeless actually are — in recognition of the fact that many of them are, for a variety of reasons, unlikely or unable to converge on a central location for help.

The article also references this great essay by Barbara Ehrenreich, which I recommend:

Most cities, for example, have ordinances designed to drive the destitute off the streets by outlawing such necessary activities of daily life as sitting, loitering, sleeping, or lying down. Urban officials boast that there is nothing discriminatory about such laws: “If you’re lying on a sidewalk, whether you’re homeless or a millionaire, you’re in violation of the ordinance,” a St. Petersburg, Florida, city attorney stated in June 2009, echoing Anatole France’s immortal observation that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges…”

A grizzled 62-year-old, [Al Szekeley] inhabits a wheelchair and is often found on G Street in Washington, D.C. — the city that is ultimately responsible for the bullet he took in the spine in Phu Bai, Vietnam, in 1972.

He had been enjoying the luxury of an indoor bed until December 2008, when the police swept through the shelter in the middle of the night looking for men with outstanding warrants. It turned out that Szekeley, who is an ordained minister and does not drink, do drugs, or cuss in front of ladies, did indeed have one — for “criminal trespassing,” as sleeping on the streets is sometimes defined by the law. So he was dragged out of the shelter and put in jail.

“Can you imagine?” asked Eric Sheptock, the homeless advocate (himself a shelter resident) who introduced me to Szekeley. “They arrested a homeless man in a shelter for being homeless?”

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