When I was unhoused and living in campgrounds and parking lots up and down the West Coast, I had one place I could always call home: the internet. The world felt incredibly hostile with no roof over my head and nowhere to park up and stop and sleep. Unhoused people are regularly demonized and unfairly blamed for society’s ills. It was inevitable that I became ostracized from society like many of my unhoused peers are.
Other people looked at my family and me with a potent brew of hostility and derision, giving us and our ancient, dilapidated van a wide berth as if they could somehow catch poverty from being close to us. Housed people seemed to suspect that we were somehow dangerous to them.
People have a lot of preconceptions when it comes to unhoused people. None of them are helpful or good. It is exhausting and isolating being an outcast. Yet the internet, accessed through a cell phone, became a connection point with the world. Since no one can see anyone else at the other end of words, initial first impressions are somewhat fairer and more honest. The internet is a great leveler. At least it was until a certain billionaire purchased a powerful platform for free speech and discussion aiming to impose a new regime.
There is a total failure of official policy to deal with housing issues. The rising costs of living regularly outstrip income for so many people. And it is getting worse, not better. One slip or an unfortunate chain of events combined with a lack of family support and homelessness becomes inevitable.
In person, I often found that the housed world had little sympathy or understanding. However, in the vast lands of social media, I found connection and meaning, comradeship and solidarity. I found support. I realized I was not alone.
Zac Alleywalker Lowing, a formerly unhoused Twitter-er and artist from Chicago, commented to me on Twitter:
“Reaching out and finding I’m not alone has helped.”
This shared experience is immensely valuable. People who share their lives and troubles find threads of commonality, and this is precious. It is easy to lose hope when you think you are alone and feel isolated.
It didn’t help that when I became homeless long-term, something permanently changed how I saw the world around me and the people who lived in it. I felt like I was living in parallel, not in conjunction with everybody else.
Reintegrating into a world inhabited by housed people who lack experience of being down and out and having to live outside has been a huge undertaking, which I have not yet mastered. Yet Twitter and other social media outlets prove that good people exist and that some understand and do not judge. Twitter, in particular, has been a source of friends and support and showing me that the world that turned on me so viciously is not wholly bad.
Through Twitter, I became aware of ‘Homeless Culture,’ full of creativity, vibrancy, openness, empathy, and lack of judgment. The world can learn so much from those who have so little and live lightly.
Twitter has shown me that instead of being ashamed to belong to the unhoused subset of society, there is a lot to be proud of.
Zac Alleywalker Lowing pointed to this phenomenon to me while talking about what Twitter has to offer unhoused and formerly unhoused people. He said:
“I’ve also started seeing a pattern in the homeless folks I’ve encountered online, that we all seem to have a similar culture, you might say. Similar issues from people on opposite sides of the country.”
Twitter is such a valuable resource and currently a fairly low-barrier resource. It is precisely that universality that has made it so accessible to people for support, awareness, and fundraising.
Social media allowed me to get to know people who could get to know me without knowing I belonged to a group that they demonized. Some of these people proved not to be people I would want to be friends with in offline life. Others I formed a bond with and came to trust in time, and these people proved to be a huge practical support and emotional support.
In a series of now-deleted tweets, Elon Musk touted charging a subscription to use the service, of around $2 a month, payable yearly. This would give every subscriber a much-coveted “blue tick.” Musk wrote:
“The power of corporations to dictate policy is greatly enhanced if Twitter depends on advertising money to survive.”
Free speech is not so free. Apparently, it is worth around $24 a year and presumably climbing with inflation. A “pay to say” program with no option for a free ad-based service would create an insurmountable barrier for those who have nothing. Unhoused people, nonprofit organizations, and those living day-to-day in poverty would be essentially cut off from the planet’s “Town Hall,” and the expression of modern popular democracy.
Twitter Blue, the current optional premium subscription service, offers advanced features and access to advert-free articles from outside websites but does not remove ads from the subscriber’s feed. It has hardly been a resounding success, with only $2.5 million being raised from app sales. These include both the “Super Follows” program and Twitter Blue.
It has to be a point of concern how many people would simply leave Twitter for another platform rather than pay. Carlos Wadkins of the Coalition Against Homelessness in my home city of San Francisco, commented that:
“I think it’s hard to imagine we’d have as much success if there was a subscription. Less of our folks would be on this site and able to see our work.”
I am deeply concerned about Twitter becoming a paid subscription service. I fear homeless people and those living in poverty will not be able to use a platform they have come to rely on for support, access to information, and simply feel like a part of a society that rejects them.
The rich will have their voices and causes amplified. Those who can’t pay lose their platform and their voice.
This brings me to another highly concerning point. Twitter is essentially the modern Forum, the 21st century Townhall. Everybody who is anybody is on it. More importantly, anybody who isn’t really anyone rich, famous, elite, or well-known is also on Twitter. It is those marginalized little voices that make Twitter so extraordinary.
Mr. Musk has made noises about requiring authentication. Now, I dislike bots as much as the next social media user. For those privileged people who do not have a risk factor come into play if they use their name, the trade-off on the table, privacy for no bots, must be attractive. I know most people will not have a problem using their names and authenticating their accounts. However, for some people, if anonymity is not an option, they will simply be shut out from Twitter and cut off from having a voice on this vital platform.
Stay tuned for Part II in this series.