Since my last roundup post two weeks ago, various corners of the Internet have been buzzing about a Wall Street Journal article concerning the use of various online technologies -- Facebook, Twitter, and hoary (!) things like e-mail and plain old websites -- by homeless people. While this kind of use of technology is in many ways old news, since Google started giving free voicemail boxes to homeless San Franciscans last year, it does drive home an important point about the ubiquity of computer-mediated connectivity in modern society: we are now at a point where a blogger can ask, half-seriously, whether it would be worse to lose your home or your internet access, and Cory Doctorow can opine that "network access" will be a human right in ten years. On one hand, some argue that network access can be a tool for getting oneself off the streets, and for staying plugged into the broader sweep of humanity; on the other, the differential success of a virtual networking site like I-Neighbors -- apparently, the tools work well in communities that are already organized, and complement rather than replace traditional face-to-face bonds of local community -- suggests some need to curb our enthusiasm about the transformative effects of online communication.
June 9, 2009
Online tools certainly provide some other intriguing capacities, directed less at the poor and homeless themselves and more at those who work to improve their situations. For example, consider this national map of homelessness assembled by Home Free Organization. Or consider this story about a homeless woman; perhaps the most intriguing thing here is the lead: "I found Joanne via Twitter." The federal government weighs in with data.gov, a massive online portal to numerous public data-sets assembled by federal agencies. Perhaps these sources of data will help the increasingly-common "poverty summits" cropping up around the country as they try to craft effective policy solutions; perhaps the data will allow a better appreciation of the success of programs like the "Housing First" strategy presently being tested in a number of cities.
Obviously data alone won't solve the problems of homelessness and poverty, and neither will marches and rallies -- although marches and rallies, like other activist campaigns, can certainly raise awareness and put pressure on elected officials. But tough policy choices remain. Since quality food is more expensive, do we prioritize feeding as many people as possible, or feeding fewer people well? Does one improve average quality of health care available to Americans, or address the glaring disparities in care and disease prevalence between different socioeconomic groups? What happens when a church's effort to help the poor and homeless starts to displace members of the congregation, thus threatening the survival of the effort itself? And what do we do with the built environments in which we now live, environments that may themselves contribute to poor health by discouraging sufficient physical activity? Tough choices indeed.
Posted by Patrick Thaddeus Jackson at 4:58 PM