Here’s What Happens When Social Media Meets Social Services

homeless man looking at smartphone

Smartphones are the Smarter Way to Fight Homelessness, Part 3: Sharing Stories

“Just knowing somebody was out there. Somebody was reading my tweet. It was an awesome feeling,” explained AnnMarie Walsh, a formerly homeless woman from Chicago who found housing faster by making use of social media.

We’ve all heard homeless success stories. While heartwarming at the surface, many of them contain harmful subliminal narratives that support the old “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” theory. It seems the media only comes around when a rare occurrence ensues. Then we hear about that one person who went from homeless to Harvard or from homeless to the NFL or from homeless to movie star. But that’s not the big picture.

Smartphones Are Vital Lifelines for Homeless People on the Path to Housing

As the technological revolution rages onward, forging through the pandemic and the economic crisis, more and more homeless people are finding the path to housing is literally at their fingertips – through smartphones.

Over the course of the past decade, study after study concludes that homeless people with cellphones are more likely to become housed than those who do not possess this vital tech.

These stories fail to make the headlines of major national news networks for a wide variety of different reasons. Firstly, they appear less sensational when compared to the oft-heard tales of grandeur. In reality, it’s completely unfair for us to uphold people enduring homelessness to such high standards that we expect them all to escape homelessness by becoming movie stars. But more importantly, it has become culturally unacceptable for America’s impoverished citizens to possess things we think of as luxury items – things like cellphones – despite the fact that they have evolved to become necessary components of everyday life.

“Quite frankly, I would be sleeping on the streets if I hadn’t opened myself up to social media. I’m off the streets because of it . . .” claimed California resident Rd Plasschaert.

From finding friends to finding housing, from accessing healthcare to assessing surroundings, people enduring homelessness across the nation are making use of smartphone technologies.

The problem remains that the nonprofit sector struggles to keep up with these trends. Across party lines, our government continues to support an outdated outreach system. In the end, this benefits nobody. It only serves to perpetuate the wretched narrative that homeless people are undeserving. This is the narrative that got us in this hole to begin with.

The Good News is That Some Social Media Support Has Emerged

Facebook groups like We Are Visible, which is run by Invisible People founder Mark Horvath, create walls in cyberspace for social media users who do not have walls in real life. Here is a place where homeless and formerly homeless people can connect to one another. They can also connect to vital outreach services, their own personal friends, and family members.

We Are Visible currently hosts thousands of people from all walks of life who would otherwise be isolated from the world. Members here can voice their fears and concerns, share their needs with one another, and so much more. The group has created an atmosphere of camaraderie that transcends digital barriers. It is filled with success stories where group members aid one another in accessing social services like:

  • Finding a doctor
  • Staying safe
  • Locating vital resources

Even simply sharing stories of united trauma has helped to prevent suicide, depression, and anxiety among group members. This type of prevention is urgently needed within the homeless community. This is due to the fact that people suffering through homelessness face fears many housed citizens would not understand – things like fearing death and imprisonment for simply existing in a public space.

Theodore Henderson, a former schoolteacher who unexpectedly ended up homeless due to health conditions, leveraged his social media prowess to create a podcast called We the Unhoused. Meanwhile, disabled freelance writer Vicky Batcher recently became housed after keeping herself afloat by way of social media posts and street vending a local newspaper. And a Calgary man who had lived on the streets for more than two decades was housed because of a YouTube video.

These are the stories that are not being shared because they contradict everything we’ve been taught about homelessness. In truth, homeless people represent a wide array of different types of individuals. We all need to banish the thought that smartphones are somehow a luxury item that should remain out of reach and embrace the ideology that new tech is the best foot forward.

Creating Connections is Much Better than Giving Directions

Many workers in the social service industry believe that homeless people aren’t using their services because they cannot locate them. This has led to a whole host of apps dedicated to helping people find services, a virtual Yellow Pages if you will. However, that isn’t what’s needed. If we truly wish to change the world by ending homelessness, we must improve services. Part of that change needs to happen digitally.

As we’ve now learned from COVID-19, a great deal of everyday activities can be conducted over the phone. This includes homeless services. When we leverage smartphone technology, and use it for the purpose of creating connections, success stories develop nationwide.

These are the stories we should be sharing. These are the everyday tales.

Talk to your representatives about making more of them by making smartphones and Wi-Fi available to our neighbors without walls.

Editor’s note: This is part three in our Smartphones series. To read part one and part two, click the link below:

Smartphones Are the Smarter Way to Fight Homelessness, Part 1

How the Healthcare Industry, the Nonprofit Sector and Even You Can End Homelessness Using Smartphones

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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