Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The Power of Pixels - Social Media & the Fight Against Homelessness

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April 19, 2012

The idea that we can end homelessness in our communities is a radical one, especially during a time of economic recession. In King County, January’s One Night Count found 2,594 people sleeping on the streets, under bridges, in their cars, or in temporary shelters and campsites, a six-percent increase from 2011. Nationally, the number is at more than 600,000. Even as we face extraordinary challenges in reducing homelessness, the good news is public awareness of the issue is growing, and this awareness is helping to promote real on-the-ground solutions that are being implemented in cities around the country. This increasing visibility, and the momentum required to make real changes in how we respond to homelessness, are increasingly being supported by new social media platforms. The platforms have the potential to advance this work more quickly and further than ever before.

One of the challenges that advocates for the homeless have always faced is the difficulty of making the stories behind these terrible numbers real. It’s hard, even for those of us working in the field, to translate the abstract concept of homelessness into the specific myriad ways that the horrible experience of living without a roof over one’s head can shape a person’s life. Enter Mark Horvath. Since 2008, Mark, known by his Twitter handle as @hardlynormal, has been traveling across the U.S. to tell the stories of Americans without a home. On his website Invisible People, Mark chronicles the specific experiences of hundreds of homeless people and their families.

The stories Mark shows us are extraordinary accounts of the multiple challenges faced by regular Americans seeking to survive in the midst of extreme crisis. Jean supports her family of five by riding a bicycle five miles each way to work, rain or shine. Yet she still can’t earn enough to find permanent housing and escape from the cycle of weekly motel rates. Cecelia waits every night for two hours for a space in shelter, together with her young children while trying to save money for an apartment security deposit. Rico struggles to make enough money selling his artwork to keep him off the streets in Los Angeles.

These videos have been seen more than 2.7 million times, and watching them, it’s hard to disagree that Mark has achieved his goal of ”leveraging the power of video and the massive reach of social media to share the compelling, gritty, and unfiltered truths that shape the reality of millions of homeless Americans.” And he’s not stopping there.

Following on the success of Invisible People, Mark has launched We Are Visible, an online tool kit aimed at giving homeless people around the country the online social networking tools they need to tell their own stories to their larger communities.

The power of social media is not just limited to giving voice to a constituency that is often ignored. New technologies also have the potential to bring people together to take action to end homelessness collectively. In Washington state, an exciting project called Firesteel is being launched that has the potential to serve as a new advocacy platform for social change. Developed by the YWCA of Seattle/King/Snohomish in partnership with all of Washington’s YWCAs and multiple human service non-profits from across the state, Firesteel seeks to channel the energy that many young adults pour into their Facebook and Twitter accounts to bring about social change. Billed as “a community of shared knowledge with a commitment to end homelessness in Washington state,” Firesteel will be a platform that works seamlessly with both Facebook and Twitter and will even include gaming features that will allow users to earn accomplishments as they become more and more involved with the site. The network will allow users to contact their legislators, reach out to their friends, and blog about topics of interest, all in the service of their community’s needs.

Invisible People and Firesteel are not by any means the only social media tools being used to combat homelessness. But they’re two great examples that give us great hope that with continuing optimism and more community engagement, we will find a solution to this persistent problem.

 
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