The Internet is the newest weapon in the continuing battle against homelessness, one of the most difficult issues in contemporary American life.
Feeling ignored by politicians and the media alike, the homeless and their advocates are using the newest mass medium -- the World Wide Web -- to fight for their cause.
Ruben Botello, a 49-year-old homeless man from northern California, founded the American Homeless Society in 1987. Earlier this year, the ex-Marine and Vietnam veteran issued a declaration of war on homelessness. That declaration came after a plea to President Clinton was acknowledged with a form letter.
Dissatisfied with the small amount of attention homelessness receives in mainstream media, Botello took his crusade to the Internet.
"(The) account was donated to me by an individual whom I met at a memorial for my best homeless friend, whom I found dead in his sleeping bag in Arcata (Calif.). The individual, Larry Goldberg, owns Northcoast Internet and supports my homeless work. Our target audience via the Internet is anyone out there who wants to lend a helping hand.. We are all volunteers, so anyone looking to make a buck off of helping the homeless need not apply. We want to attract folks who shoot from the heart, not the pocketbook, and who are not afraid to speak up for the homeless in their area during these hostile times."
So far, the strategy is working.
"I can only compare the response to the way it was when I had to copy manually-typed letters, and lick my own envelopes and stamps, to get the word out across the country since 1987. Our response on the Internet is 100-fold, compared to those years, and we are extremely pleased, even though I, and most AHS associates, are still Internet novices."
Like Botello and many other advocates for the homeless, Dave Stewart of the Bay Area Homelessness Project in California was once homeless himself.
"I became homeless at age 19 prior to most of my academic work," said Stewart, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California-Berkeley. "I left an emotionally abusive home to escape. Several other student activists have also been homeless.
"However, most of the group has become engaged by academic interest, or a generalized sense of compassion for the poor, or from engagement in advocacy on other social issues. The founder, Bev Overbo, did her dissertation work on single room occupancy hotels. A graduate student at San Francisco State felt his conscience bruise when he stepped over a homeless person to enter a subway station."
The Bay Area Homelessness Project's Internet site focuses more on education than on advocacy.
"The target audience includes those who want to teach about homelessness at a college or secondary school level. The Internet makes (curriculumaterials) widely and readily available. The materials are also in place for an intended electronic college course -- ultimately anyone could take a course about this issue. They are also available to those who want to do self-paced learning by browsing what's posted.
"We receive several e-mail responses each week (three to 10) from correspondents in North America and Europe. They range from requests for help (people at risk or seeking lost homeless people), requests for local Bay Area information, guidance from students writing papers, and inquiries from people who want to teach courses or put on workshops."
Barbara Duffield was a tutor for homeless children before she became education director for the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C. She says her organization's Internet site was established for both education and advocacy.
"It seemed to me to be a way of reaching a much broader audience of people with information about the causes and consequences of homelessness, and also how they could help," Duffield said. "We've received a tremendous response -- from people in need of shelter to service providers to students to the media. I would say that the home page has far exceeded my expectations, except that now my expectations are even greater!"
In 1970, Timothy Harris was a homeless teen runaway. Today he is the director of Real Change, a newspaper by and for homeless people in Seattle. Harris said the Web site for Real Change was developed as a service to people in other cities who want to duplicate his paper's successful model.
"We think homeless papers are an incredibly powerful tool for homeless self-help and public education,'' Harris said.
One of the things contributing to Real Change's success is its attitude. Unlike many publications dealing with homelessness, Real Change remains upbeat and positive.
"Part of what makes our project work, is that people buy Real Change because they really enjoy the paper," Harris said. "We are able to deal with the issues without boring people or making them dread us as being unremittingly grim. People trying to survive do so with humor and style and drama. We just try to pass that on."
Photo in headline graphic © 1994 John Decker
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