Internet Access Draws Homeless To Libraries FWD

Tom Boland (
Sun, 18 Jul 1999 22:01:48 -0700 (PDT)

HOMELESS PEOPLE'S VIEWS, News, Alerts, Actions & Research
5,000+ ONLINE posts by or via homeless & ex-homeless people

[Article below quotes Chance Martin of
San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness

"You go to a library, and I'd say about 30 percent of people using the Net
are homeless." Okra P. Dingle, who is homeless, uses a computer for free
access to the Internet in the San Francisco public library. -- from article
FWD  File found: Sat, 17 Jul 1999

     Life Online: How the Net is changing society


     Free Internet access at public libraries attract the homeless

     By Margie Wylie
     Newhouse News Service

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.

"It's really catching on. You go to a library, and I'd say about 30 percent
of people using the Net are homeless."

THIS DAY, 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. His army green backpack, festooned with
Boy Scout patches, beer logos, and duct tape, rests nearby. Plumbing-supply
bracelets ting on his heavily tattooed 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."

["Image:Okra P. Dingle, 33, by a railroad line in Berkeley, Calif"]

Dingle is one of a contingent of homeless people homesteading cyberspace,
thanks mostly to free public libraries. 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 in
Washington. Nobody knows exactly how many homeless people use the Net, but
librarians say their ranks have grown noticeably in the last couple of

"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"
said Camper, the Minneapolis librarian.


Dingle's circle of e-mail friends also exchange 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.

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 has automated its shelter bed
registry and hopes to put it online soon, said Josh Dean, state coalition


"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. 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.

"When you don't have a place of your own, it's hard to keep up with what's
going on," said Taylor, a 25 year-old homeless woman who wouldn't give her
last name. "I try to come in here every day and check the news from,
literally, around the world. It's great."

Homeless people take advantage of free services in ways their sponsors
never considered. Jim, 60, is one them. He uses the Internet to do research
for his part-time job. He circulates ballot iniative petitions, receiving a
commission for each signature he can gather.

Jim, who has lived out of shelters for five years, 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.

"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."

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 Karen Venturella, editor of "Poor People and Library Services."
"Well, on the Internet, nobody knows you're homeless."


**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
educational purposes only.**

5,000+ POSTS by or via homeless & ex-homeless people
Nothing About Us Without Us - Democratize Public Policy