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The Homeless Stay Wired
May 30, 2009 8:40 PM   Subscribe

On the Street and On Facebook: The Homeless Stay Wired. "Like most San Franciscans, Charles Pitts is wired. Mr. Pitts, who is 37 years old, has accounts on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. He runs an Internet forum on Yahoo, reads news online and keeps in touch with friends via email. The tough part is managing this digital lifestyle from his residence under a highway bridge. 'You don't need a TV. You don't need a radio. You don't even need a newspaper,' says Mr. Pitts, an aspiring poet in a purple cap and yellow fleece jacket, who says he has been homeless for two years. 'But you need the Internet.'"
posted by homunculus (47 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Via.
posted by homunculus at 8:42 PM on May 30, 2009


"You don't need a TV. You don't need a radio. You don't even need a newspaper....But you need the Internet."

Spoken like a true Mefite! Let's buy this chap an account!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:43 PM on May 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


ThePinkSuperhero: " Let's buy this chap an account!"

We can tell him if it's safe to eat that.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:44 PM on May 30, 2009 [6 favorites]


Neat: Mr. Schreiber later switched to a Mac because it uses less juice. He keeps the fan and wireless antenna off when possible and cools the laptop by putting it on a damp washcloth. He says that by using such tricks, he can keep the laptop battery going for 16 hours, if he avoids videos.


posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:51 PM on May 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


We can tell him if it's safe to eat that.

Or how to get rid of that 180 lb. corpse that's been hanging around for three weeks.
posted by Ufez Jones at 8:52 PM on May 30, 2009


I am 100% certain there are at least two - not just one - homeless persons who are regular, contributing, recognize-their-username members of MetaFilter right now. The homeless are us. They are not the other.
posted by yhbc at 9:01 PM on May 30, 2009 [14 favorites]


I became aware of this trend via a family member who was outraged- absolutely incensed that the homeless had the temerity to waste time on the internet instead of spending all their time... uh... welllll...
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:12 PM on May 30, 2009


I became aware of this trend via a family member who was outraged- absolutely incensed that the homeless had the temerity to waste time on the internet instead of spending all their time... uh... welllll...

It's weird how much people hate the poor.
posted by delmoi at 9:13 PM on May 30, 2009 [10 favorites]


I became aware of this trend via a family member who was outraged- absolutely incensed that the homeless had the temerity to waste time on the internet instead of spending all their time... uh... welllll...

"Pulling themselves up by their bootstraps," I believe is the operative propaganda catchphrase, or it was at one time.
posted by blucevalo at 9:16 PM on May 30, 2009


Is this supposed to be my Scrooge-style peek-at-the-future moment?
posted by phrontist at 9:18 PM on May 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Mr. Ross loves movies. He rents some from Netflix and Blockbuster online and downloads others over an Ethernet connection at the San Francisco public library."

The MPAA should get this guy to be their spokesperson. The message: Even a homeless person can afford to rent movies (some of the time).

Now I feel really shitty....*closes mininova tab*
posted by shoebox at 9:30 PM on May 30, 2009


I always think it's amusing when homeless people live in places like San Francisco or New York. If you were looking for somewhere to live on a low income, large cities are just about the worst option you have, barring places like Aspen. You'd probably do best going for a small town, preferably one of the small towns that has some sort of industry going on (oil, mining, etc.) You could probably find housing for less than 1/4 of what it would cost in a large city.

Of course, for the homeless who are mentally ill or hopeless addicts, it wouldn't help.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:53 PM on May 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


I dunno, Mitrovarr, small towns are full of small town cops with not a lot to do and bad attitudes toward the homeless infesting "their" town. Plus, there's not the same level of social services in small towns that you'll find in big cities.
posted by Jawn at 10:13 PM on May 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Mitrovarr, big cities have options like public transportation, shelters, clinics, libraries, social support systems (like drug counseling, career counseling, mental health) and pedestrians passing by for panhandling. Small town housing might be cheaper once you get established, but that first hurdle of rent deposit and finding a job and buying a car (because small towns usually require a car to get around) can be huge, and even then the town might not have the support you need to sustain all that for the long term.
posted by cadge at 10:27 PM on May 30, 2009 [4 favorites]


Not to mention that it's far easier to panhandle the price of a meal in a big city.
posted by JaredSeth at 10:28 PM on May 30, 2009


cadge: Mitrovarr, big cities have options like public transportation, shelters, clinics, libraries, social support systems (like drug counseling, career counseling, mental health) and pedestrians passing by for panhandling.

I grew up in a town of 10,000 and it had every one of those things, including a homeless shelter. Anyways, you don't need public transport much in small towns, you can easily walk to at least 1/3 of it, and bike to at least 2/3 of it.

It is true that the panhandling would be worse. Maybe your best bet would be to beg until you could build up a little money, then move when you could afford a few months in a small town in order to find a job. I dunno.

I can understand the points you guys are making, but I just can't get past the fact that I could never afford to live in somewhere like San Francisco at what my field would pay, despite the fact that I have a bachelor's degree and a couple of years of work experience. A homeless person probably won't have any education and if they do, they'll probably be considered too flaky for a professional position anyway, so their situation could almost certainly be worse. I'm sorry, but cities are for the rich, and the poor are marginalized and downtrodden if they manage to exist at all. It is simply not a good environment to get back on your feet.

At the very least, you'd want to go to a smaller city.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:14 PM on May 30, 2009


It is only a matter of time before we see the poor on the corner panhandling for WoW Pre-Paid Time Cards.
posted by TwelveTwo at 11:48 PM on May 30, 2009


Mitrovarr, that's assuming most homeless persons want to get back into mainstream society and their own home as soon as possible. Many do. Some don't. Many are mentally ill and can't do it even if they wanted to. Some just said "screw it" after things went south financially and just started drifting.

When the company I used to work for would hire temporary laborers, almost all of them were homeless. I saw all types. One of them made enough money to get a motel room by the week, and then kept working and saving money until he had an apartment and a car. He has been self sufficient ever since. Several would work their minimum four hours and then call it a day and go get their pay. Some of them tried like hell but just couldn't keep things together, often due to mental issues. Others would work a couple of weeks and then split town.

In a smaller town, the homeless really stick out. In a city, they tend to be able to blend into the scenery. And the "more services" thing really holds true. While your small town may have had a homeless shelter, big cities have several. They have day labor places where someone can make $40 a day. There are more medical care options. There are more ways to find a meal. And so on.
posted by azpenguin at 11:49 PM on May 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Related, Tokyo version.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:17 AM on May 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


When he realized he would be homeless, Mr. Livingston bought a sturdy backpack to store his gear, a padlock for his footlocker at the shelter and a $25 annual premium Flickr account to display the digital photos he takes.

I think this is it.
posted by lullaby at 12:28 AM on May 31, 2009 [4 favorites]


Seems to be trendy these days to rave about the comm tech & the homeless, here's an article from a couple of months ago that talks about how important a cellphone is for the homeless in DC (originally Washington Post)

The san franciscio article in the FPP focuses on "how deeply the internet" has permeated society and covers the various "cool" homeless people (aka the BoP) and their laptops and power generating solutions but the DC one seems to hit on the value of this connection a little more,

Chris, 42, got an entry-level job at Verizon Center last year. He tried to get back on his feet, but each time, he missed calls from his boss, who often dialed a soup kitchen or shelter switchboard. Eventually, he was labeled unreliable and lost the job.

This time, he got a pay-as-you-go cellphone and gave his boss the number. “I live up near the Capitol - give me a call anytime if you need extra hands,” he told his employer, being vague about where he bedded down each night. He received numerous calls to come in early or to work an extra shift. After less than a year on the job, he was promoted. “No one there knows I’m homeless,” he said. “I would never have been able to do this without the cellphone.


The bottomline seems to be that connectivity, communication and community matter - matter enough that people prioritize their limited cash and access to the interwebs, whether by phone or laptop. That the time has come to stop wondering why a rural African might go without a meal to top up the minutes on their prepaid mobile phone OR why someone should seek to purchase that laptop at Goodwill,

Lisa Stringer, who runs a program that teaches job and computer skills to homeless and low-income residents, says some students who can't even read or write save money to buy computers at Goodwill. "It's really a symbol in today's society of being OK and connected," she says. She sometimes urges homeless students to put off buying laptops until their living situations stabilize.

Its more than a symbol or even anything to do with 'today's' society, especially if you're poor. I think this taps into something far deeper and far more human - else why would this behaviour be showing up from San Francisco to Swaziland?
posted by infini at 12:41 AM on May 31, 2009 [4 favorites]


Also related, The homeless guy, previously on Mefi.
posted by Z303 at 2:06 AM on May 31, 2009


Clearly the next trend piece that needs to be written is about how the credit crunch is impacting their ability to maintain their second homeless.
posted by srboisvert at 2:41 AM on May 31, 2009 [5 favorites]


Mitrovarr: I always think it's amusing when homeless people live in places like San Francisco or New York.

Really? You think it's amusing that homeless people choose where to live?
posted by gene_machine at 2:46 AM on May 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


What I think is really shameful is the $59 welfare check. Talk of being unable to maintain a certain level of human dignity.
posted by dunkadunc at 3:06 AM on May 31, 2009


What I think is really shameful is the $59 welfare check.

That was the thing that stuck out at me when reading the article as well. A single person's benefits here in the UK is abysmally low -- something like £60 a week before rent, etc. but this guy is supposed to try and live on $59 a month?!? WTF is up with that?

America really does suck.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:08 AM on May 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


This story was better when it was a running thread in Doonesbury.
posted by localroger at 6:09 AM on May 31, 2009


does anyone know the twitter account name used by Charles Pitts ?
posted by Baud at 8:55 AM on May 31, 2009


Looks like his twitter account is PoetCharles.
posted by Night_owl at 9:23 AM on May 31, 2009


I can understand the points you guys are making, but I just can't get past the fact that I could never afford to live in somewhere like San Francisco at what my field would pay, despite the fact that I have a bachelor's degree and a couple of years of work experience.

I dunno. When I moved to SF in 2001, I got a job that paid $12/hour, and I survived fine (I now make more). Group house, and learning to cook good, cheap meals can make cities like San Francisco and NYC doable.

As for why the homeless guys wouldn't move somewhere else....Well, this is their home. This is where their friends - and in some cases, family - live. If you think it's difficult to pick up and move to a place where you have no built-in support system when you have all your mental faculties, a good education, decent credit, and no drug problems, it's tenfold (or more) that for a homeless person. And in a big city, you don't have just one soup kitchen, one drug treatment center, one place to go to get your HIV meds (for instance), you have multiple places and services.
posted by rtha at 12:05 PM on May 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


It is true that the panhandling would be worse.

This is the #1 reason in my opinion. Nobody walks in small towns, they drive, thus making it difficult if not impossible to get change from passersby. In contrast to the small US town where I grew up, where the few homeless seemed to get by on selling newspapers at intersections, the homeless here in Toronto seem to get a fairly steady stream of change from people walking past, especially if they sit right in front of Tim Hortons or the corner store.

Incidentally, I wonder if begging for change in Canada is more profitable than in the US, given that there are no paper bills for anything less than $5. People might be more inclined to give an extra loonie to a street beggar than to actually pull a dollar bill out of their wallets. So the optimal place to be homeless in North America might actually be a small town in Canada where there are a lot of people walking around - perhaps Kingston or another college town. But of course, then you have the cold weather to worry about.

The absolute best change-gathering spot I've seen was at the Labrang monastery in China's Gansu province. Pilgrims circling the monastery gave small change as alms to beggars and by the end of the day they had amassed quite a sum.
posted by pravit at 12:55 PM on May 31, 2009


rtha: If you think it's difficult to pick up and move to a place where you have no built-in support system when you have all your mental faculties, a good education, decent credit, and no drug problems, it's tenfold (or more) that for a homeless person.

How could it possibly be harder? You have no stuff to move, no job to transfer, no ties to the place you're in. Moving consists of finding the expressway and sticking out a thumb. And when I started discussing this point, I mentioned that I wasn't talking about people with severe mental health issues or drug abuse problems - those kind of people are very unlikely to self-rescue. We can add people with huge health problems, like HIV, to the list.

I mean, whatever happened to the hobo or the drifter?

Also, I think $12 an hour is way beyond what any homeless person is going to start out making. Try minimum wage.
posted by Mitrovarr at 1:18 PM on May 31, 2009


This makes perfect sense to me and it's really one of the more hopeful, less cynical social outcomes from the Internet that we're seeing take place. The Strength of Weak Ties theory holds that our weak ties, acquaintances, are more important to landing a job or forwarding social change than our strong ties. Weak ties pull us out of our local group, keep us connected to news, trends and fads, give us a broader outlet for our own ideas and help us cast a wide, wide net when looking for a job.
posted by Skwirl at 1:21 PM on May 31, 2009


pravit - that's why there are so many homeless/panhandlers in Vancouver BC. It never really gets cold enough to kill those living on the streets. Similar with Victoria (but you have to make it over by ferry).

I have no idea how the homeless survived the winters when I was in Iowa.
posted by porpoise at 2:05 PM on May 31, 2009


About 6 years ago, I once answered an ad on craigslist for a guy looking to barter a pocket pc for a laptop. Turned out, he was homeless, and he spent most of his day hanging out at various wifi spots around the city (Seattle). He was probably more connected to the internet than I was at the time, keeping in touch with his friends over IM and email.

Later, I met him at a Starbucks to help him configure something with the laptop, and it turns out he had a group of about ten friends there, all with laptops, spending their days communicating with each other. I guess they would coordinate when to meet, when to go to the shelter, and when to bus over to California for the winter. I guess I was seeing the precursors of all this social networking stuff nowadays.
posted by razdrez at 2:41 PM on May 31, 2009


How could it possibly be harder? You have no stuff to move, no job to transfer, no ties to the place you're in.

But a lot of these folks do have ties - they have friends here, they know where the safe(r) places to sleep are, where the recycling centers are, where they can panhandle where the cops won't hassle them, where the free clinics are, which church has free food on which days, where the good dumpster-diving is, etc. Some of them do move to warmer places in the winter, but it's to a city of comparable size and services.

As for the $12/hour, I was addressing your point that you would not be able to live in SF; lots of people live here on jobs that pay that (or less). It isn't easy, but it is doable. You can even go out to eat once in a while, since there are a lot of cheap non-fast-food restaurants here. Additionally, San Francisco has a living wage law; if you work for a city contractor or nonprofit, the minimum wage is at least $10/hour now - it may be more.

And when I started discussing this point, I mentioned that I wasn't talking about people with severe mental health issues or drug abuse problems - those kind of people are very unlikely to self-rescue. We can add people with huge health problems, like HIV, to the list.

Most of the homeless people in San Francisco have mental or physical health problems, some quite severe, and they often self-medicate with illegal drugs. There are very few (relatively speaking) able-bodied, mentally healthy non-addicts who are homeless. So if you're going to say that people without those problems are mobile, you're right, but you should acknowledge that there are very few of them, and it isn't therefore surprising that not many homeless in SF are in any condition to pick up and move to a small city or town.
posted by rtha at 3:24 PM on May 31, 2009


> Also, I think $12 an hour is way beyond what any homeless person is going to start out making. Try minimum wage.

That's not too far off from minimum wage in San Francisco. Depending on where you work, minimum wage here is $11.54, $11.03, or $9.79.

It's not as if homeless folks don't have any friends, family, or ties to the community. Many have all of those, and wouldn't be any better off moving to another city where they don't. A lack of material possessions is not the same thing as a lack of community.
posted by gingerbeer at 3:27 PM on May 31, 2009


Raise your hand if you've gotten a job - a long-term, life-sustaining job - in the last four or five years without the Internet.

How 'bout without the Internet or a phone?
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 4:21 PM on May 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


While we're on the subject, I'm curious to hear from MeFite librarians what's up with the trend in recent years towards restricting library computer access to those with a library card. Don't you have to have a street address to get a library card in most places?
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 4:23 PM on May 31, 2009


Most public libraries just want to see something that appears to show that you live in town. You could probably fake something up easily enough.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:28 PM on May 31, 2009


My urban library has a sizable homeless population that we welcome. Obviously we prefer to have proof of address but it is considered more important to serve the member's needs and if they don't have id I give them a library card without id. Most people are pretty honest and in the grand scheme of things, if someone is going to make up a fake name in order to steal ten books then maybe they really need those books. The books are replacable. They are the ones that have to live with what they have done. In my library some computers have fifteen-minute timers and are available without a library card, the computers for an hour or more need alibrary card to access just to free up staff time from policing computer-users (how long have YOU been on this computer?) and instead helping members.
posted by saucysault at 8:24 PM on May 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


Reminds me of Michelle Obama Soup Kitchen posing for a photo from a guy in line with a cameraphone.

That sure made the rounds of the right wing echo chamber.
posted by jfrancis at 8:33 PM on May 31, 2009


Not a bad article as written, but none of this is really news to anyone who's worked in a public library, or even spent much time in one, for the last decade+.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:02 AM on June 1, 2009


Hey homeless internet people, please quit digging in my trash cans. Seriously, there's dog poop in there!
posted by snsranch at 9:51 AM on June 1, 2009


Rent control allowed me to live in a nice place in San Francisco (a shared three-bedroom flat in Pacific Heights!) during the late 90s on a little less than $800 a month. I had a car (a '72 Beetle) and car insurance thru Triple A. I fed myself, friends, and two big dogs without having to go to Food not Bombs even once, and never dug in trash cans. That city's not exactly gone, I think (I left when the dot-com boom happened; new landlords offered me money to vacate), but possibly harder to access.

Here's to homeless people being resourceful! After being unemployed for six months, I'm taking notes from this article, because that may be me come January.
posted by goofyfoot at 6:42 PM on June 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Bureaucrat scuffs dream of homeless shoe shiner
posted by homunculus at 2:31 PM on June 4, 2009


Update to the story.
posted by gingerbeer at 1:51 PM on June 5, 2009


« Older Three years after the failure of his recklessly am...  |  She did it again.... Newer »


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