The Homeless Stay Wired

A few years ago, some people were concerned that a digital divide would separate those that have technology from those that don’t. That doesn’t appear to be the case today if you consider the number of homeless people who have computers and access to the Internet.

Take Charles Pitts, for example. Mr. Pitts is 37 years old and lives in San Francisco. He has accounts on Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, runs an Internet forum on Yahoo, reads online news, and emails friends regularly to keep in touch. The difference between Mr. Pitts and many other people who do these types of activities is that Mr. Pitts lives under a highway bridge.

To keep his laptop charged, Mr. Pitts, who has been homeless for two years, keeps a mental list of spots where he can charge batteries and go online, including a deserted corner of a downtown train station and wired cafes who tolerate long stays and lots of bags. Others, such as Skip Schreiber, 64, an amateur philosopher who lives in a van, get more creative when it comes to powering their electronics. Schreiber is currently using a Mac because it requires less power. He keeps the fan and wireless antennas off whenever possible. He says he cools the laptop by placing it on a damp washcloth. He claims by doing these things he can keep the battery going for 16 hours if he avoids videos.

Obviously not all homeless people can afford to have their own computers. To help provide computer and Internet access, some homeless shelters are installing computers. For example, New York City has put 42 computers in five of its nine shelters. The city plans to wire the other four shelters sometime this year. Roughly half of another 190 shelters in the city also offer computer access. Central City Hospitality House, a San Francisco nonprofit group, figures half of the visitors to its eight computer drop-in center are homeless. Here, the demand for computer time is so great that users are limited to 30 minutes.

Inexpensive computers and the prevalence of free Internet access are definitely helping fuel the phenomenon, as does an increasingly computer-savvy population. Some homeless advocates say the economic downturn has pushed some of the middle class that is accustomed to being wired on to the streets.

For some who are homeless, being wired helps a person feel more accepted by society. Lisa Stringer, who runs a program that teaches job and computer skills to homeless and low-income residents, says, "It's really a symbol in today's society of being OK and connected." Robert Livingston, 49, said "It's frightening to be homeless… when I'm on here, I'm equal to everybody else."