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Homeless turn to Twitter for food, shelter

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Homeless people use social media for support
  • Social media helping homeless get needed assistance -- from food to counseling to housing
  • teaches homeless people how to utilize social networking sites
  • Blogger says "It's important to have that sense of community"

Los Angeles (CNN) -- Blogging and tweeting might be among the last hobbies you'd list for a homeless person, but some down-and-out people have embraced social media in such a way that it's actually garnered them needed assistance -- everything from food and diapers for children to counseling and housing.

"I did not believe in social networking before I ended up on the streets," says Rd Plasschaert, who became homeless last year. "It's the way people are finding housing. It's the way people are finding food banks."

Plasschaert, who had lost her job and was on welfare, joined the social networking sphere one month before she knew she was losing the bedroom she rented. She started a blog called "Lost Awareness" in desperation when nonprofit agencies told her they couldn't help her out until she had actually lost her home, she said.

A homeless blogger from England recommended Plasschaert sign up for Twitter and search for homelessness-related hashtags, or topics, on that site.

Days before landing on the street, Plasschaert contacted a man who went by the handle @hardlynormal for advice on available services. That connection ultimately led to Plasschaert getting into her own subsidized studio apartment this year.

"It was purely social media that placed me. Absolutely and totally," she says.

But the incident did more than simply house Plasschaert, it helped inspire a website called with tutorials to teach homeless people how to use social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

"I saw how technology could improve people's lives," says the website's creator, Mark Horvath, the man who was @hardlynormal. "I was creating WeAreVisible to empower homeless people to have a voice, a voice that we all have, but the homeless population doesn't."

Horvath knows about being homeless -- he lived on the streets of Hollywood more than a decade ago, and, fours years ago, when he lost his job and his house in foreclosure, he essentially embarked on a career of recording homeless people's stories and posting them online.

He knew that many homeless people had the tools to connect online.

"If you were going to be homeless tomorrow, what are the two things you'd take? Your laptop and your cell phone," Horvath says.

With the growth of free wireless services at coffee shops, stores and libraries, people don't need their own Internet connection or cell phone calling plan to use their devices. And those without personal communications devices can access computers at shelters and libraries.

Homeless people are embracing social media for various reasons.

AnnMarie Walsh, who was living in an empty lot in Chicago, says tweeting as @padschicago gave her a sense of peace.

"I used (Twitter) as an outlet to vent my feelings and to share information about homelessness and things I was going through," Walsh says, adding that she was driven to the streets in 2004 after emotional trouble linked to an abusive past. She didn't join Twitter's ranks until two years ago.

"Just knowing that somebody was out there, that someone was reading my tweet, it was an awesome feeling."

She says her tweets caught the eye of a case worker last summer, which led to transitional housing and a permanent room in April. Others use social media to critique and praise homeless shelters, case managers and city agencies.

"It's changing how shelters and cities do business," says Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, especially because of what he calls the "lightning-fast communications."

Horvath says his ultimate goal for would be to connect homeless agencies directly with the people seeking services, what he calls "virtual case management."

"Homeless services need to step up and listen to people online, because they're there. They're there searching for us," says Horvath, who until recently was working at a shelter before heading out on another tour of recording homeless people's stories.

Horvath says the unintended impact of has been the creation of a virtual community for homeless people and those who have been there. He has more than 12,000 Twitter followers alone.

"We encourage each other," says Plasschaert, who volunteers to train homeless people to use computers. "It's important to have that sense of community."

"I encourage homeless people to do whatever it takes to get out of their situation," Horvath says, "and if that's social media -- jump on!"


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