Homeless in Cyberspace

By Terry Calhoun

I often hold up my Treo 650 and my Dell Latitude X1 and say to people, “This is all I need and my office is wherever I can get a Sprint signal.” The mobility of my professional functionality will be increasing over the next few years, as Washtenaw County, the home of Ann Arbor, Michigan, will be blanketing the county – even my rural section – with wireless within two years. Then I won’t even need the Treo.

I was kind of startled the other day to read a few articles about how even homeless people are managing to get connected and online. Some of them even have smart phones and laptops, so I guess they could say that “My home is wherever I happen to be and can get plugged in.” We probably aren’t far from the point in time when most people are connected wherever they are, whenever they wish – even the homeless.

I don’t know if this means “the digital divide” is now officially defunct, or not. It hasn’t been very long now that I was hearing, “We can’t go fully to online communications because we’ll be disadvantaging those who don’t do e-mail or the Web.” I don’t hear that anymore. My employer organization, as well as organizations whose boards I serve on have found that we can triple the response rate for leadership elections by providing members with an easy way to vote online, for example.

In Wired News, the recent article “Laptops Give Hope to the Homeless,” the writer says that “While people living in shelters and alleys have found it difficult to cross social divides, the digital divide seems to disappear on the streets. Nearly all homeless people have e-mail addresses, according to Michael Stoops, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. ‘More have e-mail than have post office boxes,’ Stoops said. ‘The Internet has been a big boon to the homeless.’”

This was a total surprise, almost a shock, to me, and I am delighted. First, because there is nothing I enjoy more than learning something that just d'esn’t fit with my preconceptions. And also because it is wonderful that we’re able to find a way to ensure that those who are the worst off, financially, can still partake in the new “utility” that is the Internet. These include the homeless bloggers.

One, called “The Homeless Guy,” starts his most recent blog: “The worst kind of hypocrisy comes from people in authority, ‘cause they are the ones who should be leading by example, both ethically and morally. If the front of the train is on the wrong track, the rest of the train is sure to follow.”

Another, called “Wandering Scribe,” begins his most recent blog: “I seem to have a nomadic ability to put down roots very quickly – to just stay in whatever situation I find myself in and not budge, to get used to, and quickly make a home of it, wherever it is. I did it there in the laneway, almost put down roots, bizarrely got used to things, and week after week did not budge. It's as if something switches off in my brain and I don't want to leave more than I want to do anything else. It's not really on a conscious level, the not wanting to leave, I'm replaying old scenes, acting out old pain, but I don't always see it.”

Just for fun, let’s compare those to Ann Coulter’s most recent column: “I dedicate this column to John Murtha, the reason soldiers invented fragging. In response to the arguments of my opponents, I say: Waaaaaaaaaah! Boo hoo hoo! If you're upset about what I said about the Witches of East Brunswick, try turning the page. Surely, I must have offended more than those four harpies. Wait 'til you get a load of what I say about liberals in the rest of the book! You haven't seen the half of it. For snarling victims, my book is Christmas in July. Hey – where’s Max the grenade-dropper? Let's keep this diaper-fest going all summer.”

You have to kind of wonder how it is that she gets paid a lot of money for threatening people and justifying murder, while those other folks are just homeless. Imagine a homeless blogger writing that “George Bush was the reason soldiers invented fragging.” He might well find himself with a new home, courtesy of the NSA. On the other hand, since they can’t find Osama bin Laden, it might be hard to find that homeless blogger, too.

Seriously, the juxtaposition makes the point that the Internet and ubiquitous connection to it, is bringing to the rest of us contributions from people we might otherwise never hear from, and that’s got to be good in the long run.

For example, Gary Musselman is a homeless artist in Los Angeles whose chance encounter with a blogger has brought him to prominence, selling his artwork all over the world instead of just on the street.

There are homeless hackers, some with earned reputations. One such hacker, Lamo, has been praised by companies whose sites he has hacked, and then informed them of the security holes. Not everyone appreciates his work, though, and he might have a home in jail soon because one company wants to press criminal charges for his hacking.

Apparently, homeless organizations and local community-based governmental and nongovernmental organizations have been quietly urging the homeless to at least get an e-mail address for years now. It has led to an improvement in communications with them, especially with the proliferation of access in public libraries, and that’s a good thing.

We’ve gone full circle from “The Internet lets you stay home and work,” to “Even if you don’t have a home, you can have a home on the Internet.” Life is so much more interesting than television.

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