Homelessness 2.0: How technology helps the homeless

Blogs have revolutionized journalism. Word processors changed school projects forever. And people can communicate around the world instantly at very little cost. Indeed, technology has changed the lives of millions of people—but what about the often neglected homeless population?

I wanted to find out if the ever-owering price of technology has benefited homeless people in any way.

“It’s scary out there. Taking small comforts through technology can mean more than most people know. I don’t have anyone I can reach out to in real life, but someone (online) will always take a minute to say something encouraging and it helps, even if just a tiny bit.”

Those are the words of Kristen, A 28-year-old college student who spent a lot of her life as homeless. She agreed to talk to me about homelessness and what kind of influence technology has on it.

Kristen became homeless shortly after graduating high school. She was diagnosed schizophrenic while young.

“After I graduated I was kicked off my parents insurance and went off my medications,” she recalls. “That’s when things started to go badly. I started having intense hallucinations and voices were talking to me more and more often. One night after a hell of a coke binge I guess I lost it. I thought demons had possessed my friend and she was trying to kill me. I attacked her. That lead to my first trip to jail, and then the mental hospital. 

“My friend decided not to press charges against me,” she continues. “And after they medicated me to the point I wasn’t a danger to anyone, they let me go with a bag full of meds. I left town. I bought a bus ticket to Austin, Texas, and met up with a person I had met online. I stayed until the demons and voices started getting intense again, then I knew I had to leave. I did this over and over again the past five or six years.”

Before living on the street, Kristen was able to get help from people she had met online. Many let her live with them and fed her while she tried to start her life over. Without the help of these selfless people from the Internet, she may have years long ago, another forgotten girl.

“I met up with people I had met online, through a journaling site (inthewire.com),” she notes. Inthewire.com no longer exists today, but there are many sites like it online that homeless people can use to connect with people, make friends and live a virtual life if need be.

Kristen didn’t use computers freely available at the library; instead she would ask the men she stayed with if she could use theirs. Many would be fine with that but only after they had gone to sleep. 

“The computers helped me stay in touch with the people I knew online,” she says. “I could update my journal, give people my new phone numbers, find out who wanted some company. There was a girl in Georgia I knew from the journaling site. She was amazing. She made me feel like things would be all right again. Her messages were little messengers of hope. A lot of the people I knew on the site were like that. They were real, they were constant, they gave me a touchstone to home in on.”

Kristen says that having computer access “helped immensely. It helped me feel like I was connected to people and not so alone.” 

The computers were a major help, but Kristen also had access to a cellphone every so often: “I would buy cell phones once in a while to give my parents a call—pay-as-you go specials from convenience stores, never anything with a plan. Phones were hard to keep ahold of; they always ended up stolen or ditched because I thought the demons could use them to track me. But they got me out of an abusive relationship once. They kept me from being raped as well. A ring at the wrong time can be perfect.”

Technology helped Kristen get off the streets. She says life would have been much harder without it.

 “Lonelier. More dangerous,” she tells me. “I think I would have had a heck of a lot more real living on the streets time. It scares me to think about it, really. The streets are hard for women. I don’t know how to stress how good it is to know you’re not completely on your own. The first couple years after I left cell phones and computers weren’t everywhere like they are now. Those were really lonely years.

“It’s scary out there,” she admits. “Taking small comforts through technology can mean more than most people know. I don’t have anyone I can reach out to in real life, but someone there will always take a minute to say something encouraging and it helps, even if just a tiny bit.”

We take the Internet and technology in general for granted and don’t realize just how amazing they are. It has made it possible not only for homeless people to apply for jobs and keep in touch with family, but also to have a voice and get anonymous support.

Kristen’s life wouldn’t have been the same without technology. Kristen isn’t a special case either; there are many like her out there. All of them just trying to survive with what they have. Technology is making it easier for these men and women to finally find a way out, or at the very least get some comfort in a harsh world.