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Mr. Pitts Lacks a Mailing Address But He's Got a Computer and a Web Forum
SAN FRANCISCO -- Like most San Franciscans, Charles Pitts is wired. Mr. Pitts, who is 37 years old, has accounts on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. He runs an Internet forum on Yahoo, reads news online and keeps in touch with friends via email. The tough part is managing this digital lifestyle from his residence under a highway bridge.
"You don't need a TV. You don't need a radio. You don't even need a newspaper," says Mr. Pitts, an aspiring poet in a purple cap and yellow fleece jacket, who says he has been homeless for two years. "But you need the Internet."
Mr. Pitts's experience shows how deeply computers and the Internet have permeated society. A few years ago, some people were worrying that a "digital divide" would separate technology haves and have-nots. The poorest lack the means to buy computers and Web access. Still, in America today, even people without street addresses feel compelled to have Internet addresses.
New York City has put 42 computers in five of the nine shelters it operates and plans to wire the other four this year. Roughly half of another 190 shelters in the city offer computer access. The executive director of a San Francisco nonprofit group, Central City Hospitality House, estimates that half the visitors to its new eight-computer drop-in center are homeless; demand for computer time is so great that users are limited to 30 minutes.
Shelter attendants say the number of laptop-toting overnight visitors, while small, is growing. SF Homeless, a two-year-old Internet forum, has 140 members. It posts schedules for public-housing meetings and news from similar groups in New Mexico, Arizona and Connecticut. And it has a blog with online polls about shelter life.
Cheap computers and free Internet access fuel the phenomenon. So does an increasingly computer-savvy population. Many job and housing applications must be submitted online. Some homeless advocates say the economic downturn is pushing more of the wired middle class on to the streets.
Aspiring computer programmer Paul Weston, 29, says his Macintosh PowerBook has been a "lifeboat" since he was laid off from his job as a hotel clerk in December and moved to a shelter. Sitting in a Whole Foods store with free wireless access, Mr. Weston searches for work and writes a computer program he hopes to sell eventually. He has emailed city officials to press for better shelter conditions.
Lisa Stringer, who runs a program that teaches job and computer skills to homeless and low-income residents, says some students who can't even read or write save money to buy computers at Goodwill. "It's really a symbol in today's society of being OK and connected," she says. She sometimes urges homeless students to put off buying laptops until their living situations stabilize.
Staying wired on the streets takes determination. Electricity and Internet access can be hard to come by. Threats, including rain and theft, are a problem.
Robert Livingston, 49, has carried his Asus netbook everywhere since losing his apartment in December. A meticulous man who spends some of his $59 monthly welfare check on haircuts, Mr. Livingston says he quit a security-guard job late last year, then couldn't find another when the economy tanked.
When he realized he would be homeless, Mr. Livingston bought a sturdy backpack to store his gear, a padlock for his footlocker at the shelter and a $25 annual premium Flickr account to display the digital photos he takes.
One recent morning, Mr. Livingston sat in a cafe that sometimes lets customers tap its wireless connection, and shows off his personal home page, featuring links for Chinese-language lessons.
Mr. Livingston says his computer helps him feel more connected and human. "It's frightening to be homeless," he says. "When I'm on here, I'm equal to everybody else."
For Skip Schreiber, 64, an amateur philosopher with wispy white hair who lives in a van, power is the biggest challenge to staying wired. Mr. Schreiber tended heating and ventilation systems before work-related stress and depression sidelined him around 15 years ago, he says.
For his 60th birthday, he dipped into his monthly disability check to buy a laptop, connected it to his car battery, and taught himself to use it. "I liked the concept of the Internet," says Mr. Schreiber, "this unlimited source of opinion and thought."
Mr. Schreiber later switched to a Mac because it uses less juice. He keeps the fan and wireless antenna off when possible and cools the laptop by putting it on a damp washcloth. He says that by using such tricks, he can keep the laptop battery going for 16 hours, if he avoids videos.
In the van, stacked with toolboxes, electric gear and bedding, Mr. Schreiber shows the contents of his laptop, including the complete California legal code and files on thinkers from Thomas Aquinas to the psychologist Philip Zimbardo. Mr. Schreiber says writings about human behavior and motivation help make sense of what has happened to him.
"No one creates themselves as a homeless person," he says. "We make the choices we can with what we're offered."
Michael Ross creates his own electricity, with a gas generator perched outside his yellow-and-blue tent. For a year, Mr. Ross has stood guard at a parking lot for construction equipment, under a deal with the owner. Mr. Ross figures he has been homeless for about 15 years, surviving on his Army pension.
Inside the tent, the taciturn 50-year-old has an HP laptop with a 17-inch screen and 320 gigabytes of data storage, as well as four extra hard drives that can hold another 1,000 gigabytes, the equivalent of 200 DVDs. Mr. Ross loves movies. He rents some from Netflix and Blockbuster online and downloads others over an Ethernet connection at the San Francisco public library.
One evening recently, Mr. Ross lay down on his sleeping bag and watched an X-Men cartoon on the laptop, listening through headphones over the roar of the generator. When he travels downtown, he takes all the gear with him for safekeeping. His backpack bulges with cords and bubble-wrapped electronic gadgets. Mr. Ross says he doesn't notice the weight.
Mr. Pitts, the poet who lives under a bridge, keeps a mental list of spots to charge batteries and go online, including a deserted corner of a downtown train station and wired cafes whose owners don't mind long stays and lots of bags.
When he was evicted from his apartment two years ago, Mr. Pitts says, "I thought: My existence and my life don't stop because I don't have a place to live."
He bought a Toshiba laptop. When it died, he bought a used Dell. Last month, that one expired, too, with a cracked screen. Now he checks email and posts to his Internet forum on homeless issues, from computers at libraries, college campuses and a laptop stashed behind the counter of a coffee shop by a friend.
Before the Dalai Lama visited a soup kitchen here a month ago, Mr. Pitts researched the Buddhist leader on Wikipedia and copied the text onto his iPod, to read in bed under the bridge. "I'm under my blanket, under a tarp, reading Dalai Lama this, Dalai Lama that," he says.
Mr. Pitts expects to soon scrape up the money for another computer. He figures he can get one for less than $200.
Source: The Wall Street Journal