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How the Internet Has Both Helped and Hurt the Homeless

A staff attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness guides Pacific Standard through the pros and cons.

By Rick Paulas


(Photo: pedrosimoes7/Flickr)

When I meet a homeless person on the street — a more and more frequent occurrence in the Bay Area, where rents are skyrocketing and affordable housing hasn’t been built quickly enough — I say hi, run my hands over my pants pockets, and feel for change. If I have coins, I hand them over. If I don’t, I say “sorry” and move on.

It’s a common enough move. Contrary to mother-held belief, I am not a saint. But it means that whatever change the person receives during that particular meeting relies almost entirely on whatever monetary transactions I’ve made thus far that day. (I don’t take to starting my day by lining my pockets with spare change.)

More or less, this has been the way of the world since money was invented. Those in need ask for help, and those with extra money give it to them. But something has changed with the rise of the digital age and the “disruption” of physical currency.

People are walking around with less change on them. According to a 2014 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the average consumer carries around just $22 in their wallet. Currently, only 40 percent of purchase transactions involve cash. It’s easy to project a future in which all our shopping is done over servers. This isn’t a good thing for those trying to get by on the kindness of passing strangers.

“Common sense would tell us that fewer people carrying cash does have a depressive effect on the amount of money that a panhandler might be able to make each day.”

“[Less change] is something I have heard from service providers,” says Tristia Bauman, the senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness. “Common sense would tell us that fewer people carrying cash does have a depressive effect on the amount of money that a panhandler might be able to make each day.”

While the financial hit during the move to a cashless economy hurts, some are already adapting. In Detroit, Abe Hagenston made news earlier this year after the press learned he was accepting donations via credit cards, and even on Square, through an application on his smartphone. (He even has a website.) “Being homeless is my business now,” he told WDIV News.

The digital shift has not been all bad for the homeless. In addition to obvious benefits like the greater ease of searching and applying for work and corresponding with friends and family, digital life has allowed cities like San Francisco to offer reservations at local shelters through the Web. The rise of “Know Your Rights” apps like LegalSwipe and Hands Up allow homeless people to quickly consult their smartphones during police interactions.

The fact that email has taken over as our society’s primary point of written connection has also provided a surprising benefit to the country’s homeless population.

“Homeless people are frequently arrested for any number of low level crimes, from loitering to trespassing, to laws that target their basic activities like sitting or lying down outside,” Bauman says. “One of the issues I encountered when I was a public defender in Miami was that homeless people would not be released if the state decided to move forward with the prosecution because they were concerned that the person wouldn’t get notice of a future hearing.”

The offenders’ lack of permanent addresses made it hard for the system to call them back for a court date, so officials just locked them up until their scheduled appearance. But increased email access has allowed courts to simply gather up an email address and send homeless people on their way. ���It’s a very positive thing, to secure their freedom when they don’t have money to pay for bonds and don’t have a mailing listing to give to the court,” Bauman says.

While some homeless people have smartphone access — for those prone to criticizing this, maybe do some quick back-of-the-napkin math on the difference between monthly rent and a smartphone bill — most get online by visiting public libraries. But some cities are more forcefully clamping down on the homeless presence in these public spaces.

In 2014, the town of Burion, Washington, passed an ordinance allowing public libraries to remove individuals from publicly owned properties for a wide range of offenses, including “bodily hygiene or scent that is unreasonably offensive to others.” Critics saw the ordinance’s passage as a clear infringement on homeless rights. “[It] was to remove homeless people from the library, but not the lady wearing too much perfume,” Bauman says.

Something like this is nothing new in the continual criminalization of homelessness, wherein people are arrested or detained for simply sitting or stopping in certain public spaces overnight. (The other alternative being, I suppose, simply spending all night walking around?) But barriers to the library tend to disconnect the homeless from information and resources that may help them reverse their fortunes. “We all need access to a computer to function today, and that is typically the only place that homeless people can get access,” Bauman says.

It’s kind of like collecting donated food in a warehouse and then setting the whole thing on fire. If points of access are taken away, the gains that the rise of the digital culture has enabled are erased. All the homeless population is left with is the loose change we no longer have in our pockets.