Since we began offering wireless internet access in the library, we’ve seen a HUGE increase in the amount of people who use the library for internet purposes. Most of them use laptops, although we ave a few regulars who use their blackberries or other hand-held devices to access the internet. It is a bit of new ground for us here and we’ve had a few rough areas that still need to be worked out ( people wanting to use Skype in the library, people having trouble keeping a connection etc.), but it is a learning experience for all of us. So far, I don’t think we’ve come across this in our community, but it seems that the homeless are now relying on free internet access to continue leading productive, “normal” lives.
An article on Boing Boing featured a whole homeless community that uses email and the internet to stay connected to the world. It argues that soon, the internet will be seen as “essential” to our lives, a basic human right, and that all homeless people should have access to that right just as much as anyone else. Just what do the homeless use the internet for? Essentially, all the same things everyone else does : social interaction, civic engagement with politicians, job hunting and even entrepreneurial pursuits. Since most homeless people only have access to shelters for brief periods and essentially remain without a solid home address, having an email address is essential to staying in contact with the world. It costs nothing to have an email address whereas a mailbox can cost money each month so more and more people are using email as a way to stay in touch with their families, government and, essentially, the world.
Many homeless are using the internet to blog about their lives, to shed light on what it is like in this economy for more and more people who suddenly find themselves jobless and unable to afford accommodation. They are also creating online, having their own essentials, such as a camera to document their lives in order to earn a few dollars through their photography on sites like Flickr and Shutterstock.
We often think of homeless people as not wanting to work, not wanting to help themselves out of a bad situation and often, we think that these people have nothing to offer to society. These days, our mind frame should shift when thinking about the homeless. Often, people who were once very vital and contributing members of society are now finding themselves in a horrible situation due to no fault of their own. They WANT to find a way back to the lives they once lived, and they are doing so through the internet. Creative people are setting up their own online businesses with skills that they once used, such as website design, photography and even music. If they can stay connected, they just might find a way out. You can read another article about one such person right here.
If nothing else, the internet is a way for homeless people to access resources that might once have been only given out by social workers, police and shelter administration. One such site is the San Francisco Homeless Resource, but I’m sure each big city has their own such site. They now have a voice, a way to complain about poor conditions in shelters or find out where they might get a free hot meal. I’d never really thought of the internet as a way to maintain a lifestyle that seems undesirable to most, but it really is necessary to those who have no other voice or way to get a hold on the world. I’ll think of this type of internet user the next time I plug in our wireless connection at the library. I really don’t know who might need to use it today.