Homeless People and The Internet
By: Chris Ready

Abstract

      Homeless people in this country have a great disadvantage when it comes to having access to the Internet. Pretty much the only place that they have to surf the web are Libraries. Along with the gaining popularity of the Internet, the topic of getting the homeless wired to it is also growing. In this paper I cover every aspect of the homeless and the Internet. Included are subjects such as what the homeless use the net for, to ideas on how society can come together to end this problem. 

Introduction

       A few weeks back I was asked a question: “How can we improve accessibility to the internet for homeless people?” Many thoughts ran through my head, such as should the homeless even have any access to the Internet, when they don’t even have a place to live? Food should even be a bigger issue than having Internet access, yet this is a growing issue in our society today. The Declaration of Independence specifically says, “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal.” Now when I read this, the founding line of United Stated of America, I understand that all people whether homeless or not should have equal opportunities to every thing, even the Internet.  I hold the opinion that, yes; society should do everything we can to provide the homeless with more Internet terminals. 

Places to Access

        I remember a time not to long ago having to look up book of interest to me in a filed subject catalog, when I went to the library. Now I can a person can walk into a Library and use a computer to do just about anything including using the Internet, providing there are open terminals. That is why it is not surprising that the Library had become the number one place for the homeless to surf the web. According to Greg Miller of the Las Angeles Times, many homeless shelters across the country are now opening up computer labs to train their residents along with the other services they provide. Also in Seattle and Montreal some homeless organizations have built cyber cafes, which are used for chatting and interaction with other people (Miller).

Libraries Reaction

       Miller says that about 75% of the people using L.A. Public Libraries are homeless (Miller). Michael Rogers a writer for the Library Journal wrote, “The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that the city’s high tech library has attracted a faithful group of homeless net users (Rogers).” 

“Marcia Schneider, public affairs director for the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL), confirmed the Chronicle's findings. While the question of providing service to the homeless has been a political hot potato in libraries for years, Schneider insists that there has never been a problem with any of the homeless that use SFPL's net station (Rogers 27).” 
Apparently most libraries welcome the homeless and even provide them with email accounts and even offer them a designated amount of web space for them to store personal records and writings. Having Internet access also allows the homeless to talk to people that wouldn’t normally stop and talk (Rogers 27).

Internet Opportunities 

       Now the Internet is becoming the tool of the future and even more useful tool for homeless people. According to Christopher Jencks, a writer, there are between 300,000 and 400,000 homeless people in the United States (Roleff 23). Only a small percentage of these people ever get access to the Internet. With the increasing popularity of the net, more and more of the homeless are finding, in a sense, a home. Though it would seem that the homeless have more to worry about than logging on, such as food and shelter, the Internet has become a way of escaping their street life. The majority of the Homeless that use the Internet use it to check e-mail and surf the web. An even smaller percentage of them become entrepreneurs and create their own web pages to sale merchandise (Miller). The free e-mail that the homeless are using provides them with many opportunities that they could otherwise not have because they do not have a mailing address or phone number, such as applying for college (Miller). 

What do the Homeless use the Internet for?

       Homeless people, as any other people, use the Internet for variety of different things. “Sending E-mail and reading news apparently are among the biggest allures for logging on (Rogers 27).” Many of these people use the Internet for searching the classifieds for jobs. “One homeless man in Los Angeles was recently admitted to college and awarded financial aid based on applications he submitted online (Miller).” Some take it a step further and learn HTML and create their own web site in which they use for many things, like making money by selling goods. Others use this knowledge to set up pages aimed at scamming people out of some money. Even with all this many still find time to use the Internet for chatting and meeting other people (Miller).

Reasons to Provide More Accessibility 

       As with anything that comes to debate in this country there are many advantages and disadvantages to providing better and more access to the homeless. I would have to say that the biggest advantage to providing more terminals is it will give the homeless a chance to improve their computer skills, thus improving their chances to finding a job in the near future. The Internet can also be a very resourceful place to find financial assistance for college, and can now be used to apply to colleges. There is also a saying that “knowledge is power,” but I believe that whom you know can often be more powerful than knowledge, and as we know the Internet can be very useful in meeting people. Michael Davidson, the creator of a web site aimed at helping the homeless, wrote this on his site, “Whether one's circumstances are temporary or semi-permanent, the Internet can help to level the playing field by giving one a voice and access to massive amounts of information (Davidson).”

Negative Effects

       There is always a negative side to everything that we do as a society. I think that providing the homeless with Internet access will be of great use to them. There are a couple of things to be afraid of though. Since the Internet can be very addictive I would hope that some of the homeless do not find it so fulfilling that they decide they need not look for a job. One man in California found the Internet to be so interesting that he decided to go without a house. This man made enough money at his job that he could have paid rent for a lower end apartment, but instead he saved his money and spent it on a laptop computer, cell phones, and Internet access (Harrison 37). 

 How can we improve accessibility?

       How can we improve Internet accessibility for the homeless? This is a good question that only leads to one answer, money. How can we get this money is a very good question. I always have been told that is takes money to get money and that is just what one Los Angeles shelter did, according to Greg Miller (Miller). The Los Angeles Mission, which is a non-profit Christian organization, that runs mostly on donations from private citizens. This place provides pretty much anything that the homeless need, such as food, computer access, laundry services, place to sleep… pretty much anything you can think of including church (Los Angeles Mission). This place didn’t just grow this big by accident either. 
The Los Angeles Mission was the first to build a computer center in Los Angeles, California, largely because it was also among the first shelters to embrace modern marketing methods. Mass mailings, tear-jerking ads and other programs boosted its annual budget from just $750,000 in the mid-1980s to $13,000,000 by decade's end (Miller). If we are to ever break this barrier between homeless and people who are not, we first must develop the care that this place has, which will give us the influence to spend this type of money. Other places should model what this place has done, though $13,000,000 is not accessible to all places, I think it would pay off if each shelter in each city would spend the money to pay for a 30 second advertisement on a local station. Now not only do these shelter need the money to provide the computers for this access but they must also provide the training to use these computers. This is where volunteers come in handy because each part of society must come together if we are ever going to be able to rebuild it. 
       All shelters that provide services to the homeless should have a web site. One reason is to get you message out to possible donors. I would say that this is the sole reason for having one but it could prove to be very profitable. Also the small percentage of the homeless that have access to the computers now will prove to be a very helpful tool for promotion. Word of mouth is one of the most productive means of advertisement and when a homeless person sees a site on the web and then visit it they will tell all the other homeless people they meet. So a shelter website must be geared not only at possible donors but also at the people who will be using the shelter. If a homeless person was to visit a web site and not find it inviting then they are more likely not to visit the shelter. 

Negative Returns

       Though I have presented this to be a hot issue, which it is in Today’s politics, it does not seem to be a hot issue with the people I contacted for information. I sent five emails out to five different people that I found while searching the Internet. These were not just random names either they were all people associated with Homeless and the Internet in some way. I got two of the five emails back. One of the two was form a librarian, which basically acted like she did not know what I was taking about and did not associate with people of lower class. The other email that I got back was a friendly email saying that their services did not currently give the homeless Internet access, but I was given a name of another organization that did, but when I emailed them I never got any feed back. 
       Though this is a growing political issue many of the normal people at shelters that will ultimately have the biggest effect could care less, or have not encountered this problem. There are two things that we as society should do before we will ever get net access to the homeless. One is we have to break the social and racial barriers that we have, because if we don’t see every person as an equal then we will never have no reason to help them. Next, since the government has school children to worry about providing access to that leaves society with the problem of getting it to our fellow homeless people, by donating our time and money to a useful cause. 

Conclusion

       The Internet can be a very resourceful tool when given to homeless people. They can look for jobs, apply to college, find financial aid, create web sites, or just meet others who are disadvantaged like them. They can also use it for many other things, too many to count. With the growing success of the Internet it is inevitable that society provide more access for the homeless. This can be gained in many ways, mainly money. Money can be found in sponsorships, donations, and grants, but it does not come easy it takes hard work and motivation to get this done. Though money can be the major obstacle, if society combines our knowledge and time we can find a way to provide the technology needed to get the homeless on the Internet.
 

 


Bibliography


Miller, Greg. “Cyberspace Comes to Skid Row; Homeless people are Going Online to ease Isolation, cook up scams, or fulfill their 
      E-Commerce Ambitions.” Los Angeles Times 18 Nov 1999 Home Edition. 

Rogers, Michael. “The Homeless Take to the Net Using Library Connections.” Library Journal v124 (April 1999): 27.

Los Angeles Mission. L.A. Internet. 21 April 2000. <http://www.losangelesmission.org/>

Davidson, Mike. Homeless People and the Internet. 1997. 22 April 21, 2000. <http://www.members.tripod.com/~bmdavidson/#learn>

Harrison, Laird. “Home is Where the Laptop is.” People Weekly 11 March, 1996: 37

Roleff, Tamara L., ed. The Homeless. Opposing Viewpoints series. San Diego: Greenhaven Press,1996.