Wherever he laid his laptop was home: the internet and homelessness

I dare say many of you have already seen this Wall Street Journal piece that documents the increase of internet presence in San Francisco’s homeless population… but if you haven’t, I think you should go read it, especially if you’ve ever found yourself fretting over the horrible sense of disconnection from the world that a temporary loss of your broadband connection can cause.

Cheap computers and free Internet access fuel the phenomenon. So does an increasingly computer-savvy population. Many job and housing applications must be submitted online. Some homeless advocates say the economic downturn is pushing more of the wired middle class on to the streets.

Aspiring computer programmer Paul Weston, 29, says his Macintosh PowerBook has been a “lifeboat” since he was laid off from his job as a hotel clerk in December and moved to a shelter. Sitting in a Whole Foods store with free wireless access, Mr. Weston searches for work and writes a computer program he hopes to sell eventually. He has emailed city officials to press for better shelter conditions.

Lisa Stringer, who runs a program that teaches job and computer skills to homeless and low-income residents, says some students who can’t even read or write save money to buy computers at Goodwill. “It’s really a symbol in today’s society of being OK and connected,” she says. She sometimes urges homeless students to put off buying laptops until their living situations stabilize.

What’s most interesting to me about this is the way that the ‘freeconomics’ model of most web businesses is providing opportunities for social interaction to those who have dropped out of or been abandoned by the traditional meatspace support systems; homelessness no longer equates to invisibility, in other words, and a lack of fixed address no longer excludes you from a complex social life with people from a vast variety of social and political backgrounds. These people are using free services that are funded by payments from the better-off… smells a little like socialism, no?

If this isn’t a tangible example of how geography is dissolving under the influence of ubiquitous communication media, I don’t know what is. Which do you think you’d find easier to live with – losing your home, or losing access to the internet?

5 thoughts on “Wherever he laid his laptop was home: the internet and homelessness”

  1. Paul, I presume you are exaggerating for effect. But just for the record, I’d like to think we can agree that while losing access to the internet would be both annoying and inconvenient, becoming homeless would be horrible.

  2. Yeah, it’s a hypothetical exaggeration – the point is to illustrate that while the answer may be obvious now, it may not necessarily be so in a few decades’ time, possibly less. Consider both not as basic rights but basic necessities for survival; I can see permanent housing becoming much less essential than permanent connectivity in the medium term, possibly even more so in less developed nations.

  3. Actually I don’t think you’re exaggerating. We live in rented accommodation and move often. If we were to lose our home I’d hope to be able to stay with friends and rellies, rather than in a shelter or on the streets, but my life would change less as if I were to lose access to the internet. Same for hubby who works for a net company!

  4. I am kicking myself for not having purchased a laptop back when I was fully employed. Having an readily accessible internet connection is what you need to get *off* the street. An hour or so at the library just doesn’t cut it.

    A laptop with a wireless card — don’t lose your home without one!

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