Monday 13 June 2011

The homeless, social media, and libraries

A few months ago I came across an article about a homeless man who was using Facebook to keep in touch with his friends. I was a little surprised (it was pre-coffee) but as I read on I thought, well why not? Why do I use Facebook? Why do you? To keep in touch with friends and family, to stalk photos of people I hardly know, and to keep up with organisations and events I might be interested in. What does it matter where I’m living? 

In a study by Le Dantec and Edwards one participant who regularly used the internet at the public library explained, “I have a mySpace account. . . I get  in  contact  with  friends  that  have an account with them.” He was also careful about not telling his mother about the fact he was living on the street: “I’d just go visit her, I wouldn’t tell her where I was living at.” Such stable, technology-mediated forms of communication provided an important resource for …  participants in managing their own presentation of self, and mitigating the social stigma of homelessness. (1)

A 2009 article from the Wall Street Journal introduces Charles Pitts, a 37 year old who lives under a highway bridge and has a Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace account, runs a forum on Yahoo, reads the news online, and keeps in touch with friends using email.  The article includes stories of a number of homeless people and how they have managed to hold onto their laptops (and how they power them), or use the computers at local libraries or colleges to access the internet and stay 'wired.'

An advertising agency started an initiative called Underheard in New York that provided four homeless men with prepaid mobile phones and twitter accounts and encouraged them to share their stories. This even led to one of the men reuniting with his daughter. While the project is currently on hiatus you can still follow the men on twitter.

Mark Horvath, founder of says on an LA Times blog that “One hundred percent of the sheltered homeless I meet are online and on Facebook. Online is still a human experience, it's just online.”  Rd Plasschaert admits that while it wasn’t true of everyone she met at her shelter, the only reason she didn’t have to sleep outside was because of social media,  “Twitter is the only reason I have housing ... It was the only thing that helped. Let me be that blunt. It is 100% the reason I went into a shelter, rather than sleeping on the streets."

In the Le Dantec and Edwards study the real life social network was the primary way that participants navigated the world around them. They found that ‘the potential for augmenting social networks with technology lies in enriching and multiplying the number of connections the homeless person has to social institutions as well as other members of the community who are attempting to get off the streets’, (2) and social media is certainly a means to do this.

So where do libraries come into this? Well if you haven’t guessed it already, libraries provide a safe and secure place for people to access the technology to use social media. Now I know there are some contentious issues about the homeless using libraries. I suggest reading this post from In the Library with the Lead Pipe from the end of last year that gives some good reasons for why we shouldn’t be shutting people out of our libraries unless they’re actually causing some real disturbances (as we would with anyone else).

Mission Australia has also just released a statement expressing their concerns over figures that close to 60% of people who need help from government-funded homeless shelters are turned away each day, so there are certainly still high numbers of homeless people in need of help in Australia.

While most public libraries these days run classes in introductory computer skills and social networking, I think it's a good idea not to forget about the homeless when considering who might be taking your classes, or who you might target them to. I haven't been able to find any literature on what is happening in New South Wales and I'd love to hear from anyone who can fill me in, but I did find a paper from a previous ALIA Public Libraries Summit, where libraries in WA were looking to offer library membership to the homeless who came to them via local care centres, and a company called Reclink would pay a bond to the city to cover any losses, to bypass the normal eligibility requirements of having proof of residential address to join. I also know that when I was working in a public library you needed to have a library card to use one of the proper computer terminals so we created some "fake" accounts for people who couldn't sign up. There was a mixed response to this and I'm not sure what their policy is now. We had an "express" terminal that was supposed to be for people without cards, but it only had internet access (no word processing) and you couldn't print, and there was no chair.

I'm interested to hear what (if anything) your library is doing to work with the homeless, or if you have any good ideas of how social media might be used. Obviously not everyone who is homeless will use social media, and those that do won't all come into the library to do their social networking. I think it's definitely something for libraries to be aware of though. On a side note, I found this app, called iHomeless, and while I'm sure they had excellent intentions, I’m not sure if it’s just me, but I found it rather patronising and they just seem to be missing the whole point.

1 & 2 - Le Dantec, Christopher A., & Edwards, W. Keith. 2008, 'Designs on dignity: perceptions of technology among the homeless', Proceedings of the twenty-sixth annual SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems, CHI 2008, April 5-10, Florence Italy, pp. 627-636.

Katrina is an ALIA Sydney committee member, blogs at Multifarious Librarian and tweets @katreeeena


  1. Thanks Katrina, great post! Definitely food for thought. Libraries are often leaders in providing services to minority groups, and I hope we can do the same here. I'd love to hear some Australian stories in this area.

  2. Thanks Sally. It's something I've been interested in for awhile but have never found much literature about it, particularly not based in Australia. Quite interested to hear if anyone has been getting involved in any way.

  3. thanks katreeena for sharing...:)
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