A Homeless Person with a Camera Phone Is Worth a Thousand WordsWhy do people assume that the poor and the homeless can't have (and don't deserve) items of any value? As the conservative Heritage Foundation continues to rail about the relative state of poverty in America versus the rest of the world — "89 percent [of households classified as poor by the U.S. Census] own microwave ovens" and "97 percent have a color television" — Americans continue to sink deeper into poverty. A microwave can be had at Walmart for less than $54, but a steady, well-paying job is not so easy to come by. What these critics are leaving out are the people so poor that they often don't belong to a household: the homeless. Of course, when the homeless use technology, the holier-than-thou types are even more aghast.
My favorite example of this strange phenomenon happened in March 2009, when First Lady Michelle Obama famously visited the homeless at Miriam's Kitchen in Washington, D.C. Since her husband was only 44 days into his presidency, she was trying to find her way as first lady and the homeless thought, if only for a brief moment, that she might make homelessness and poverty her area of focus. Instead, the focus in the following days unfortunately was on one diner who used his cell phone camera to take a picture of Obama.
There seems to be no shortage of people whose primary purpose in life is to ruin someone else's moment of pleasure. After Obama's visit, countless people attacked the man who had a camera phone and photographed the First Lady while someone else took a picture of him. People began disparaging him by asking things like, "How is it that he can afford a camera phone and can't afford to pay rent?" The short answer is that, after you pay about $300 for the phone (if you buy it new), the monthly charge is somewhere between $20 and $50 , whereas the average rent in D.C. is $1,400 per month. It doesn't take much day labor to pay for a camera phone, and the phone provides a literal lifeline.
At that time, people were surprised to learn that a homeless person can actually use a computer and that a considerable number of them own cell phones. Within weeks the local papers ran articles about how the homeless use technology (hint: in much the same ways as the housed). In April 2009 several other homeless advocates and I were interviewed by Russian TV. By June, I was on NPR Radio where the host mentioned how I use Twitter and Facebook to advocate for the homeless and that I have a blog about homelessness. (I now write for three.) Three days later, I was on CNN and it was more of the same. Everyone seemed surprised.
It doesn't end there. In early 2010, an employee of the U.S. Department of Labor (whose headquarters is right across the street from the largest shelter on the east coast) pasted the photo of the homeless man snapping Michelle Obama into a DOL e-mail and sent it around with an offensive caption. A fellow homeless advocate received that e-mail and contacted the Department of Labor. He didn't call for the employee's termination, but rather used the occasion to forge a relationship with the department and is now in discussion with them about creating job training programs for D.C.'s homeless (about one-fifth of whom live right across the road).
And so the story goes. A picture is worth sometimes a lot more than a thousand words. There were some who made uninformed, if not stereotypical, remarks about the mundane incident at Miriam's Kitchen. However, it blossomed into a major media event for the homeless, thus shedding more light on the issue. And, as this last anecdote indicates, when life throws you lemons, you can indeed make lemonade.
Photo credit: Moomettesgram