Homeless In Cyberspace FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Wed, 24 Feb 1999 18:06:39 -0800 (PST)


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http://web3.stlnet.com/postnet/news/wires.nsf/National/1387B70EAE9F15B8862567220
06106FA
FWD  St. Louis Post-Dispatch - February 24, 1999
     Cyberspace and Technology Beat

     HOMELESS PEOPLE HOMESTEAD IN CYBERSPACE

     By Margie Wylie
     Newhouse News Service

SAN FRANCISCO -- Okra P. Dingle checks his e-mail most everyday. Like
hustling spare change, hopping freight trains or scoping out a dry sleeping
spot, the Internet has become a regular part of his hobo lifestyle.

Today, the 33 year-old Dingle -- he made up the name -- is hunched over a
computer keyboard in the airy atrium of San Francisco's new
multimillion-dollar main library. He wears roughly patched yellow overalls
and sturdy work boots. His army green backpack, festooned with Boy Scout
patches, beer logos, and duct tape, rests nearby. The sides of his head are
shaved smooth, leaving a patch of orange-ish hair that tails off into a
short braid that points up and down as he glances from keyboard to screen.
Plumbing-supply bracelets ting on his heavily tattoed forearms as he pecks
out e-mail messages. One is a poem for his 16-year-old stepdaughter.
Another goes to friends inviting them to meet him in New Orleans. They're
all homeless, too.

``I do this in every city,'' Dingle smiles, the silver ball of a tongue
piercing clicking lightly against his teeth, giving him a faint lisp.
``It's really catching on. You go to a library, and I'd say about 30
percent of people using the Net are homeless.''

'Dingle is one of a contingent of homeless people homesteading cyberspace,
thanks mostly to free public libraries. For the most part, the homeless
aren't looking to cyberspace to change their lives. Like other people,
they're turning to the Net to make the lives they have a little easier to
live.

But their homesteading has created dilemmas for librarians, who are
generally sympathetic and want to see their libraries open to all kinds of
users.

``Ideally, anybody should have access to the library, but realistically,
I've heard of guys coming in with cockroaches crawling out of their bags,''
said Cathy Camper, a librarian with the Minneapolis Public Library. ``One
guy passed out in foyer and lay there face down for half an hour while we
waited for the police and paramedics to come. We're just not trained for
this. We're librarians.''

About 2 million Americans were homeless for some period last year,
according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty
(http://www.nlchp.org) in Washington. That includes everyone from
politically committed anarchists, like Dingle, to runaway teens, families
and, increasingly, the working poor. More than 20 percent of homeless
people have jobs. A third are veterans, a quarter are drug or alcohol
addicts, a quarter are mentally ill.

Nobody knows exactly how many homeless people use the Net, but librarians
say their ranks have grown noticeably in the last couple of years.

``As an interurban library we've always had people coming in here smelling
bad or looking tattered,'' said Camper, the Minneapolis librarian. ``Our
library has always been used in that way and the Internet is just an
extension of that. My sense is what really changed things was Hotmail. When
free services started popping up, that's when I noticed more people
regularly coming in.''

Five years ago, Dingle, who puts his poems and stories about life on the
road into his photocopied 'zines, gave up a small gardening business in
Berkeley, Calif., and hit the road full time. For transients like Dingle,
the Net offers a treasure trove of pointers and information on ``catching
out,'' or hopping freight trains. Hobos who once communicated with scrawled
symbols on train trestles now trade e-mail.

Catching out has always been dangerous and illegal. A rash of
thrill-seeking yuppie jumpers armed with cell phones, laptops and radio
scanners brought down the wrath of freight train operators on all riders
when they published their adventures on the Web in the early '90s. As a
result, the most detailed train-hopping information is passed on the Net as
it is on the road: person to person. And hoppers are careful who gets it.

One guide tells riders where to catch freight trains after they are out of
the yard, usually when they slow down and take on fresh crews. It used to
be updated once a year, photocopied and handed around. Now it and others
are circulated in e-mail, but not posted where just anybody can see it.

``The advice can be really specific,'' Dingle said. ``Like, `Find a welcome
mat in the weeds on the north side of the yard; put your head on that mat
and look at something hanging from a bush and from there, the bull
(railroad policeman) can't see you.'''

Dingle's circle also exchanges tips on which cities offer good welfare
benefits, where to find friendly squats, hotspots to avoid, even where to
find lightly guarded Internet terminals on college campuses.

``Yesterday I e-mailed a group of friends traveling around Spain,'' said
Dingle. ``They probably don't know how to use a calculator, but they can
get e-mail.''

Dingle's life may sound romantic, but day-to-day living can be stressful
and boring for the typical homeless person, said Chance Martin, a volunteer
with the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness
http://www.sfo.com/.875coh). ``The Net is an important release from that.
It's something where the user is in total control. It might be the one
place where the person has a lot of options.''

For many, the Net has become a touchstone of normality, a constant in
unpredictable lives.

Taylor, a 25 year-old homeless woman, trundles a two-wheeled basket
overflowing with all she owns into the San Francisco Library everyday.
(Like many homeless Net users interviewed, Taylor wouldn't give a last
name.) A former office manager, she checks the weather back home in
Washington. ``Just to know what sort of day my father is having,'' she
said. ``Is it raining? Is he out in a snow storm? It just helps me keep
up.'' The Internet is also her only source of news.

``When you don't have a place of your own, it's hard to keep up with what's
going on,'' she said. ``I try to come in here every day and check the news
from, literally, around the world. It's great.''

Taylor was turned onto the Net by other homeless friends. Dingle got his
first account when an old hobo he met on a freight train took him to the
University of Albuquerque's library and set him up. Dingle returned the
favor before he left Berkeley: ``I set up a HotMail account for these two
tweaker (speed addict) kids and I filled a folder with information on train
hopping,'' said Dingle. ``They'll do it for someone else, who'll turn on
someone else. It's exponential.''

Homeless people take advantage of free services in ways their sponsors
never considered. Jim, 60, a San Francisco man who has lived out of
shelters for five years now, uses his free Yahoo e-mail account mostly as a
virtual locker. He e-mails himself addresses, notes, anything he wants to
keep but has no place to store. Likewise, Dingle keeps his address book in
HotMail. And, when he recently lost a notebook with four months of poems
and stories for his next 'zine, he was able to get most of it back because
he had e-mailed his work to friends from the road.

Jim is one of the 22 percent of homeless people who hold down jobs. He uses
the Internet to find out more about the petitions he is paid to circulate.
``The first thing people ask is, `Who's backing this?''' said the
60-year-old former office equipment repairman. ``I try to find out at least
that much before I go out.''

Many homeless people go online just to talk. Discussion groups and chat
rooms let some escape, if only for a short time, the stares and wrinkled
noses they face on the streets. Occasionally, the homeless will join in
public discussions of homelessness, but for the most part, many go online
to discuss politics, art, philosophy -- anything but homelessness.

``It's like that famous cartoon that says, `On the Net, nobody knows you're
a dog,''' said Katherine Venturella, editor of ``Poor People and Library
Services.'' ``Well, on the Internet, nobody knows you're homeless.''

Yet, for a great many, the Net is merely one more way to fill the hours
between shelter beds.

``Some just chatter and chatter all day long. It's just a place to get out
of the rain, something to do, like the movies and CD players downstairs,''
shrugs Thom, 47. The lanky laborer from Florida, said he uses e-mail mostly
to keep in touch with his family back home.

Shelters, food banks, and advocacy groups are all online, but the offerings
are still slim, said Barbara Duffield, director of education for the
National Coalition on Homelessness in Washington. She said she gets about
six e-mails a week asking for help.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is developing a nationwide
database on help for the homeless. Many communities have also started
building databases. San Francisco's Public Library offers one such
database, as do community networks, including one in Eugene, Ore.

The Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless (http://www.leveler.com) has
automated its shelter bed registry and hopes to put it online soon, said
Josh Dean, state coalition coordinator.

Nonetheless, said, Dingle, ``I don't know anyone who's gotten off the
streets using the Internet.''

Yet, in their own way, many homeless people are reaping some rewards just
from being online.

Take Don Paschal. Homeless in Santa Monica in the early '90s, Paschal was
something of a pioneer. He communicated with city leaders through the Santa
Monica People's Electronic Network (PEN), an early experiment in free
Internet access. His comments spurred the city to start a program called
Swashlock, for showers, washers, and lockers where the homeless could clean
up and store their stuff while they look for jobs.

Today, the 43-year-old is working two marketing jobs, one for an Internet
startup. He lives in an apartment in Sherman Oaks, Calif., thanks in part
to the contacts he made on PEN.

Ironically, it was computerization that helped nudge Jim, the office
machine repairman, onto the streets.

``I had no interest in computers,'' he said. ``If I'd known how much fun
they were, I think might have stayed in my job.'' Now, at 60, he's
contemplating finding part-time work with his recently acquired computer
savvy. Not only does he log onto the Net at the library, but he's also
taken several free (non-credit) computer courses at San Francisco City
College. ``I'd like to work for a couple of years before I start drawing
Social Security.''

Dingle is using online telephone directories to search for a mother he
hasn't seen since she abandoned him some 25 years ago.

And then there are less sublime uses.

``One guy prints out grainy black and white porno pictures and sells them
to the other guys on the street,'' said Camper.

Other homeless and formerly homeless people have learned to build their own
Web pages for free using services such as Tripod (http://www.tripod.com) or
Geocities http://(www.geocities.com).

Theodore Latham, who has drifted in and out of homelessness himself built
``Tedricos,'' a Web page that covers every aspect of living on the street
from panhandling to where to find shelter.

``Homeless People and the Internet'' offers homeless users an easy
launching pad. ``That's the glorious thing about it, you don't have to be
tech geek to build a Web site,'' said Paschal. ``It's a way to express
yourself, of giving that person an opportunity to say, `Here I am.'''

Some urban libraries have become virtual dumping grounds for homeless
people who have nowhere to go during the day. They've struggled with the
question of how to serve homeless patrons without short-changing others.

``The library is the crack that people have fallen into,'' said Camper,
``The upper echelon of society doesn't really have to use the library
anymore so they just wash their hands of it.''

And that leaves Camper with situations like this: ``There was a runaway
teen-age girl who was e-mailing people from the library and the police
asked us to look for her. I don't remember what our answer was, but more
and more we get stuck in the middle of the fight and you don't know who to
side with.''

END FORWARD

**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
distributed without charge or profit to those who have expressed a prior
interest in receiving this type of information for non-profit research and
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