Monday, February 17, 2020
Feb. 17, 2020

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Homeless but not friendless: How a Facebook group supports people on the streets

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LOS ANGELES — Evangeline Elmendorf Greene can go an entire day — sometimes more — without speaking to anyone in Santa Fe, N.M. When she wakes up in the cab of her truck and heads over to the Walmart to wash up, she sees families shopping together and feels alienated from their world of everyday errands and warm beds.

“I feel like a shadow in the world,” Greene said.

But when she turns to the glow of her smartphone, Greene has friends at her fingertips. Some of them she has known for years, but only behind the glassy screen of her phone. They share stories of trying to sleep on cold sidewalks, swabbing down their arms and legs with baby wipes, finding cheap hacks to stay warm or cool.

There are Facebook groups for people who adore betta fish, for mushroom hunters, the newly engaged, engineers, Pilates instructors, cryptocurrency investors, people trying out the keto diet or tracking the aurora borealis.

A Facebook group for homeless people — more than 1,200 members and counting — might be unexpected but no more strange. Smartphones have become common even among the destitute, who rely on phones and internet access to seek work, housing and other help. Many have also turned to the internet to ease the isolation and disdain they face on the streets.

In one post, an 18-year-old says she has been homeless since the death of her father. Within minutes, someone replies “so sorry for your loss.” In another post, someone thanks people for checking in after her daughter underwent surgery.

And a woman who had escaped homelessness by going back to an abusive ex said she now had days to get out of her house, after the ex decided to move to Florida.

“I’m terrified at the thought of going to a shelter if I could even find one with available space, no family left alive, no friends to turn to due to years of being controlled and isolated,” she wrote.

“I guess my question is, how do you continue to fight when you just feel like giving up?” she asked.

In Phoenix, Jamie Adams said the private group saved her from succumbing to depression.

“You can go in there and get reinforcement without anyone trying to shrink you or fix you,” said Adams, who is now living in an extended stay hotel. “They listen. A lot of people don’t listen.”

The online group was launched three years ago by Mark Horvath, who founded the nonprofit Invisible People to change public perceptions of homeless people through storytelling, education and advocacy. Horvath, who was once homeless in Hollywood, wanted to help build an online community to provide peer support around the clock.

The ground rules are simple, Horvath said: Treat people with grace and kindness. Everybody needs to feel safe. No personal attacks. No racism. And no fundraising. Although the group is meant for homeless and formerly homeless people, it also includes nurses, doctors and social workers who are there to help.

Horvath said in one instance, the group swiftly linked someone in need with a nearby doctor. In another, a Houston woman reached out to the group, asking someone to call her while she was walking back to her tent at night.

Wendi Taylor said it was the first time she had walked alone down that poorly lit street after she had survived a sexual assault. Not long after she posted on the page, a formerly homeless woman called her and stayed on the phone as Taylor walked down a darkened lot, train tracks and a shadowy, wooded area on her way back from Burger King.

“It was still fresh in my mind,” Taylor said of her assault. When she had shared her story weeks earlier, women in the group soon responded, “‘I never told anyone this, but … ‘ That same story. Over and over.

“All of these women coming out and saying how brave I was to tell that story — it made me want to tell everybody,” Taylor said.

Derrick Soo, one of the moderators for the page, credits the group with preventing two suicides over the holidays. “You can reach out to folks in the group at any time and you’re going to get a response within seconds,” said Soo, who is formerly homeless and lives in Oakland.

In Phoenix, Adams found the group after Googling something like “tips on being homeless.” Her newfound friends recommended buying cans of Vienna sausage and soda crackers to fill her stomach and gave her pointers on retaining heat under a thin blanket.

They also commiserated about traumas, indignities and worries: being doused with water by strangers, weighing how to respond to abuse in a neighboring tent, surviving sexual assault.

Adams started typing her first post. “The not having enough food, I have learned to live with. It is the being dirty that gets to me,” she wrote. She went on to recount losing her job and her apartment, bunking somewhere with no working toilet or stove. “I just want to just lay down and die.”

“I was raised up in the South. You don’t go around broadcasting your problems,” Adams said in a recent interview, her South Carolina childhood still resonant in her drawl. “But I had to have somewhere to vent or I wasn’t going to make it.”

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Trauma is rampant among homeless people: One study of homeless youth found that 57% of respondents had suffered a traumatic event. Another survey of homeless seniors in Oakland found that 37% had been physically or sexually assaulted as minors and 53% had been victimized as adults. More than 10% had been attacked in the previous six months.

Those numbers are “astronomically higher” than among older adults in the general population, said Margot Kushel, director of the University of California, San Francisco Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative. Kushel said the figures show both that homeless people tend to have experienced trauma throughout their lives, and that “the experience of homelessness is really shattering.”

Tod Gunther turned to the online group as a councilman in his Washington town, where people often came to public meetings or logged onto social media to complain about homeless people being “criminals and drug addicts and drunkards and losers.” None of them knew that he was homeless himself, bedding down in shelters and on the street.

“The last thing I wanted to do was go through the City Council finding out. I didn’t know what would happen,” said Gunther, who said he spent roughly a year on the streets after a “personal tragedy” before getting back into housing. “You become a zero. Few people understand it.”

Soo called cellphones “one of the most important tools for anybody living unhoused.” A University of Southern California study of hundreds of homeless adults who were headed into permanent housing in L.A. or Long Beach found that 94% owned a cellphone, 58% had a smartphone, and 51% used their phones to access the internet.

Those rates were not dramatically different than people of the same age in the general population, researchers noted.

USC research associate professor Harmony Rhoades said that modest smartphones can often be affordable if users rely on Wi-Fi or federally subsidized internet service, and that the upfront expense for a phone is worthwhile for many homeless people as “a lifeline to help you exit homelessness.”

“Suppose you get attacked. How are you going to get a medical response? And there are unhoused people that are trying to work. You have to have a callback number,” said Theodore Henderson, who lives in a park in L.A.’s Chinatown.

“And it connects you with something,” Henderson added. “You crave human interaction. We don’t stop being human because we’re out here on the street.”

When Victoria Bustamante was panicking about losing her spot in a Los Angeles shelter before another site was available for her and her six children, she made a plea in a live video to the Facebook group, hoping someone could help her finagle an extension.

Bustamante said that Horvath ended up connecting her with the Union Rescue Mission, where she stayed until space opened up at a San Fernando Valley center for women and children.

“I don’t think I would be able to post that video on my regular Facebook. I don’t think people would understand me,” said Bustamante, who said she fled an abusive relationship and became homeless after a landlord refused to let her keep staying with her sister. After years in shelters and motels, she now has housing through a Section 8 voucher.

Henderson called the Facebook group “a respite to share our fears and not be castigated.”

When the former schoolteacher ended up living in a park in Chinatown after becoming ill and being evicted from an apartment, he felt crushing shame. Old friends didn’t understand or chided him that “God helps those who help themselves,” he said.

“Here is a college-educated black man that went to school. Did everything you’re supposed to do,” Henderson said of himself. “And now I’m waiting for the bathroom for a sponge bath.”

In the Facebook group, “I encourage them and they encourage me,” said Henderson, who hosts a podcast called “We the Unhoused.” He started using the term “unhoused” because “homeless” was often being spat at him like a slur, he said.

“The housed community should understand that everybody needs a safe space from the vitriol,” Henderson said. “If we had a supportive society, that wouldn’t be necessary.”

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