A homeless Irish American Chicago woman, AnnMarie Walsh, used the social networking site to publish her experiences of failing to find support and housing on the streets. Since finding accommodation she has inspired at least six other homeless people to share their stories through Twitter.
Five years ago, Walsh (41) became homeless having lost her job and gone through a divorce. Walsh suffers from medical and mental health issues and hasn’t seen her two children in more than three years.
She spent the next few years sleeping in an alley in Arlington Heights, Illinois, and using the public library’s free internet to share her story online.
Through Twitter, Facebook, blogging, and other online interactions, Walsh found housing in April 2011 having made contact with Deborah’s Place, a local advocacy group.
She wrote in her blog that she joined Twitter out of curiosity but also to learn how to socialize more and engage in conversation with other “sharing information and resources”.
She explained, “Social media became my connection to others. I vented my frustrations and emotions, I educated the world about homelessness and social issues, I shared information that others might have been able to use. My passion was to find hope and to be hope for someone else. I crave that influence, to know that I have made a difference in someone’s life.”
Audrey Thomas, executive director of Deborah's Place, told the Daily Herald “The experience of homelessness is disempowering and disenfranchising…You go into the system and have to rely on people for bathrooms, showers, clothes, anything that you need. You need their help for basic human needs, let alone assistance at really getting back on your feet. This lets you take back some of your own power. Access to the Internet lets you look up and find resources in a community yourself.”
Walsh told the Herald that one of her reasons for tweeting about being homeless was so that the public could get a better understanding of what it means to be homeless.
She said, “They need to sit down and talk to someone who is homeless once in a while and find out more of the story. Most of them think that homeless people are all criminals, on drugs, alcoholics. They think we don't try to get out of homelessness and that we aren't successful at anything. Some (homeless people) have college degrees and because of the economy got laid off.”
Walsh was given the tag of “social media celebrity,” by Tim McDonald, whose business is social media and whose resume includes founding Lake County Social Networking.
He said, “I was just fascinated in the early days of Twitter that somebody homeless living on the street could keep in touch and communicate with as many people via media like Twitter…Somebody like me didn't normally have the opportunity to understand how somebody homeless survives on the street.”
A few years ago, Mark Horvath, formerly a homeless man, visited Chicago. He travels around the US encouraging homeless people to tell their stories on the website invisiblepeople.tv. He met up with Walsh and introduced her to a team making “Twittamentary” which “explores how lives meet and affect one another on the fast growing micro-blogging phenomena that is Twitter.”
This encounter led to Walsh taking a bus ride to LA where she appeared onstage with Horvath at the 140 Character Conference on Twitter.
Walsh is continuing to work with Deborah’s place, through social networking and blogging. NBC Chicago also reports that she is due to speak at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library on Sunday, 29th January, 2 pm to tell her story.