On the internet, nobody knows you're homeless

Andy Rau

Wired News has a piece about the internet's reach throughout all segments of society--even the homeless:

Many of those now living without a permanent roof over their heads have cell phones in their pockets or laptop computers at their hips. While people living in shelters and alleys have found it difficult to cross social divides, the digital divide seems to disappear on the streets. Nearly all homeless people have e-mail addresses, according to Michael Stoops, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "More have e-mail than have post office boxes," Stoops said. "The internet has been a big boon to the homeless."

Helping the homeless get e-mail addresses has been a priority for years at shelters across the country. And in an age when most every public library in the nation offers internet access, the net has proven a perfect communication tool for those without a firm real-world address.

(This topic has come up before on TC.)

It's a curiously inspiring piece. I'll admit my brain still has trouble connecting "homeless" and "has a cellphone and an email address," but I know that's outmoded thinking: internet access no longer requires a fancy computer, a permanent address, or even money.

Most interesting to me is the article's observation that internet access can provide a link to "normal society" for people who might otherwise drop completely off the edges of society. Being connected to family and online contacts can provide an anchor point for people without any other way of interacting meaningfully with society. If conventional wisdom sees internet involvement as a potentially dangerous distracation from the "real world," this is in a sense the opposite: here, the internet connects people on the fringes of society to a world that might otherwise simply forget about them.

Which leads me to a few questions: how can the church make use of this phenomenon to serve others? What if churches added internet training and access to the list of services they already provide to the homeless and needy? Is providing internet acccess to someone in need silly, when there are more "practical" needs that could be met? Presumably internet access is less important than, say, getting enough food to eat; but is it an important enough aspect of our societal life to be considered a basic need?

And whatever your answer to the last question was--do you think your answer will be different five years down the road?

Topics: Online, Culture At Large, News & Politics, Social Trends, Justice