Homeless use Internet to be connected

Addresses on the Web let them keep in touch

Logging on at libraries, shelters

September 12, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

David Kriss doesn't have a home or a regular place to sleep, but he's got several addresses - all of them on the Internet.

The 34-year-old gets his mail electronically, he meets friends at virtual message boards, and he stores his ideas on several Web sites he has helped develop.

Homeless for the past year and a half, Kriss is part of a growing number of displaced people turning to the Internet for help, companionship and psychological release. While society's most disadvantaged members and the latest in communications technology may seem an odd fit, the Internet age has been a welcome advance for the homeless as computers have become more available in community centers, public libraries and the like.

"I use it for everything," Kriss said last week from a community computer lab at the nonprofit South Baltimore Learning Center in Federal Hill.

A couple of other people sat at terminals in the bright room, using one of the dozen or so computers. A few doors down the street, Kriss' belongings - a couple of pairs of pants and some socks stored in a duffel bag - were being watched by friends at the Light Street branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, which also offers free Internet access for limited periods.

"I play games sometimes when I'm bored, keep in touch," said Kriss - his beard scruffy, but his hands and hazel eyes animated and active as he spoke about the wonders of the World Wide Web. "I'm homeless, I can't afford to call, but I can send an e-mail for free."

In recent years, homeless people from Vermont to Hawaii have created online journals chronicling their experiences, set up message boards to help others find shelter and food, and designed sites that offer a clearinghouse of survival information.

Federal Web site

Service providers have picked up on the trend, creating Web pages that tell people how to get help and encouraging use of free e-mail accounts from providers such as Yahoo and Hotmail.

This summer, the U.S. Department of Labor launched a site designed for homeless people - to criticism from some who found it ironic - meant to help them find work.

Among other electronic resources, a public policy advocacy group based in Seattle called Community Voice Mail (www.cvm.org) offers free voice mail to homeless people in 37 cities in 19 states, including Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Free instruction

Although a count of homeless people using computers is difficult to come by, those who work with the homeless and the homeless themselves note an increased presence on the Web. The Labor Department's special Web site, for example, has gotten about 7,500 visitors since its launch in July.

People don't have to have a home computer, much less a home, to gain access to the Internet, social service workers point out. It's often available free in public places like libraries and homeless advocacy centers, said Roslyn Hannibal-Booker, director of Development at the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training in Baltimore. Her center offers housing help and skills development, including computer instruction, to homeless veterans, who make up about a quarter of the 2 million to 3 million Americans with no place to live.

The biggest barrier to Internet usage is in the individual: Many homeless people suffer from disabilities, diseases and active addictions that make self-help difficult.

"For those more vulnerable or struggling just to know what day it is, this is not going to be a tool accessible to them," said Kevin Lindamood, spokesman for Health Care for the Homeless in Baltimore. Between 3,000 and 5,000 people are homeless in the city on any given night, and more than 30,000 people experience homelessness in Baltimore every year, he said.

Lindamood's organization provides medical care and addiction treatment to the homeless. Its consumer advisory committee - consisting of current and former homeless people - uses the Internet as its chief mode of communication, and clients of the association often use e-mail to reach staff.

The Internet has "become this great equalizer," he said. "It gives everyone access to information, in some respects, regardless of an individual's personal wealth or affluence."

Kriss, who is from Columbia, S.C., became interested in the Internet seven years ago, after suffering a heart attack induced from crack cocaine use, he said. He winced a little as he said it, clenching his hands together.

His father bought him a computer to use during his recovery, and he quickly became obsessed, by his description. He spent days at a time teaching himself about the Internet and communicating with hackers. He said they taught him how to break into Web sites, which, in turn, also taught him how to protect them.

Kriss, who receives state aid, is hoping to find work in Web security, protecting sites from hackers. The Internet gave him focus and "freedom," he said, which he has struggled to hang on to through arrests for alcohol and drug addiction and several prison stints for crimes related to both.

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