Posted on July 6, 2011
This blog was written by VSH’s summer PR intern, James Denison
Recently, a CNN article brought the idea of homeless individuals using Twitter to national prominence. When they became homeless, Rd Plasschaert and AnnMarie Walsh started Twitter accounts as ways to release their feelings and search for information. However, their tweets eventually led to permanent housing when they caught the eyes of case managers and concerned individuals. Mark Horvath, who has experienced homelessness himself and who helped Plasschaert find housing, later started WeAreVisible as a way to inform homeless folks about social media and give them a platform to share their stories.
WeAreVisible inspired three interns at a New York advertising agency to create Underheard in New York; they gave four homeless men prepaid cell phone and taught them how to use Twitter. In a month of tweeting, the four men each gained about 2,000 followers; they were also showered with encouragement and gifts. One man, Danny, even used social media to reunite with his daughter and grandchildren, whom he hadn’t seen in more than a decade.
These stories are inspiring; everyone can be glad that Danny was able to find his daughter and that Plasschaert and Walsh are housed now. And with the advent of WeAreVisible, more and more homeless folks will probably start accessing social media as a way to share their lives with others. As Danny told one of the Underheard interns, he always had wanted to tell his story, but he hadn’t before because he thought nobody would be interested.
But these social media initiatives emphasize an underlying irony. Danny’s story was waiting to be told the whole time. Twitter gave him a way to package and publicize his feelings, but it didn’t change the content of his story in the slightest. Why is it that we want to hear about him now that his thoughts are neatly packaged into 140-character limits? Why is it that we walk past destitute individuals on the streets without even acknowledging them, but we offer encouraging words and job tips to homeless folks over the Internet? Is Twitter a nice, sterilized way to deal to homeless people without actually having to meet them, or smell them, or touch them?
Twitter is a powerful tool that can give homeless people a voice and allow them to network and make connections. But we as a society should already be listening to these individuals; they shouldn’t feel like they need a Twitter in order to be heard. For every tech-savvy homeless person who uses Twitter to share his feelings, there are dozens of others who lack the know-how or access to social media. We can – and should – always bring a listening, meek spirit when we interact with homeless folks, whether we’re on Twitter or on the street corner.
For a year, VSH has been using Twitter to connect with homeless individuals and service providers, including WeAreVisible. To find us on Twitter, click here. We also provide a wide range of tangible assistance to homeless individuals, including housing, mental health support, and financial workshops. Whether through social media or physical housing, our goal is to transform and give a voice to formerly forgotten lives.