Homeless to housed

Doreen Traylor’s virtual life helped her out of homelessness


By: ALEXANDRA LINDELÖF

Story highlights

  • Doreen Traylor got off the streets due to her online and mobile activities.
  • Technology is a vital lifeline for people experiencing homelessness.
  • Between 2016 and 2017, homelessness increased with 13.7 percent in California.

 

SAN DIEGO – In San Diego County, 9,160 people experienced homelessness last year (pdf). Doreen Traylor used to be one of the people behind those statistics. On Dec. 31, 2011, she was evicted from her home in Georgia. She slept in a tent over the weekend, and a couple of months later she arrived in San Diego, unemployed and without a place to stay.

In 2017, homelessness increased with 13.7 percent in California
Chart over homelessness in California 2007-2017
Data source: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

When Traylor arrived in San Diego, in the beginning of 2012, homelessness in California was on the decline. That trend has shifted. Between 2016 and 2017, there was an increase in the homeless population in California by 13.7 percent.  

In 2017, San Diego County was one of the counties with the largest homeless population. Of the ten cities and counties with the most homeless people, four were located in California. With a total of 134,278 people experiencing homelessness in 2017, California was by far the state with the largest homeless population. In 2017, the second largest population of 89,503 homeless people was New York followed by:

  • Florida (32,190)
  • Texas (23,548)
  • Washington (21,112)
California has 24 percent of the homeless population

Hover over each state to see the population of people experiencing homelessness in 2017.
Data source: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

More than half a million people are homeless

The big increase in homelessness in certain cities and states, such as California, drove a nationwide increase as well. Between 2016 and 2017, the homelessness increased with 0.7 percent in the United States. That was the first increase in seven years.

In 2017, 553,742 people experienced homelessness across the country, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development annual Point in Time count (pdf).

Homelessness increase for the first time in years
Chart on homelessness in the U.S 2001-2017
Data source: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

Traylor thought that it would take about six months to resolve her issues and get back into housing. As a former military wife, who at that time, recently had left a corporate job and also had six years of college education on her resume, she did not expect to be on the streets for long. But six months eventually turned into six years.  

“I thought, I have a plan and all,” she said. “I’d make money this way or that way, and then I’ll get housed again. And that’s not how it happened.”

A complex issue

When discussing how to help homeless people and eventually end homelessness the focus is often on clothing, food, and shelter. For Traylor, one thing that lead her in the right direction, was access to the Internet, and with that access to information.

The use of technology, and the benefits of it, is an aspect that is rarely taken into consideration when discussing homelessness. Dr. Harmony Rhoades, a sociologist and epidemiologist at the University of Southern California, states that even though the vast majority of people view technology as a vital part of their lives, many people think that it is a luxury for others, such as individuals who are experiencing homelessness.

When seeing someone experiencing homelessness using a tablet, computer or smartphone, one may jump to the conclusion that the person is making irresponsible choices. Or that, since he or she can afford a phone or a computer, they shouldn’t actually be homeless.

“But we know that’s not true,” Rhoades said. “We know that technology is cheap and easily accessible in a way that housing and good paid for jobs are not. And that homelessness is much more complex than that.”

A co-authored study that Rhoades did of homeless adults who were moving into permanent supportive housing, showed that even though there is a big turnover in cell phones, 94 percent had cell phones. But only 51 percent had access to the Internet on their devices.

“I was surprised that there were not a lot (of people with) internet access,” she said. “People had phones, and that’s great, but they didn’t have access to, sort of, the other amenities that internet access would give.“

People waiting outside the Central Library.
The Central Library is one of the places that offers internet access. Every morning before opening, there are people waiting outside, some of which have slept on the sidewalk all night. Photo By: Alexandra Lindelöf.

Started a blog

While on the street, Traylor started a blog. It was a way for her to keep track of all the information she was given by the authorities, help organizations, and volunteers, without actually having to bring those papers everywhere.

“Every extra ounce you carry on the street is more burden,” she said.

It was also a way for her to keep the correct information in one place. Often Traylor found that the information she was given was incorrect, or that it wasn’t clear enough. According to her it was not uncommon that you had to go around the corner, or just a little further than was stated, to find the right place. And sometimes the information wasn’t correct at all.

“It’s a horrible hardship to find that there’s not really a meal there when you’re hungry,” she said.

In time, the blog that Traylor created for her own needs, started to attract others who needed that information as well. One of the most popular blog posts is “Mail and Mailing Address Options”, in which Traylor writes about the different options for receiving mail, while living on the streets.

Technology – a vital lifeline

Updating and maintaining the blog was one of the things Traylor occupied herself with when she had access to the Internet. But mostly, she engaged in online forums. That was one of the few places she could connect with others on somewhat equal terms.

“If you’re on the street you can start going crazy if you don’t have social contact,” Traylor said. ”And the kind of social contact that you can have in person as a homeless person is not good. It’s not a positive experience in most cases. People are not really taking you seriously. If they’re trying to be nice, it’s in a pitying kind of way, it’s not genuine.”

In these forums, Traylor could ask questions and get help finding solutions to problems that she could’ve never solved on her own. For her, it was also a place to make business connections or just converse. And she could do all of that without having to make herself, as she puts it, presentable.

“No one is gonna tell you, you smell, when you’re answering a question on a forum,” Traylor said. “No one is gonna remove you from a forum because you didn’t shower this past week, like they might from a library or from a Starbucks.”

The experience of homelessness is, in some ways, a failure in social relationships. For a wide variety of reasons the safety net has collapsed. Being able to create and maintain social connections, while experiencing homelessness, is shown to be important. It helped Traylor keep her moral compass, and studies show that it can help people stay healthier. According to Rhoades people who keep their relationships, or reinstate connections of supportive social network members, also have less risk behavior.

“So the fact that technology is a way to leverage social relationships, makes technology an absolutely vital lifeline, ” she said.  

A legal place to be

To be able to uphold these social connections, Traylor primarily relied on the library. That is where she spent most of her time during the day while living on the streets. The library gave her access to a bathroom, a water fountain, and it got her out of the cold, as well as the heat, and the rain.

“And it was a place to be, where it was legal for me to be,” she said.

But most important of all, that was where she could charge her devices and access the Internet. And that is something that a lot of people who are homeless, rely on the library for.  

“My experience is that the number one need that people experiences homelessness have, that we can provide, is access to the Internet,” said Robert Surratt, library assistant at the Central Library in San Diego.

Robert Surrat, library assistant.
Robert Surratt, library assistant, at the Qualcomm Dome Terrace of the Central Library in San Diego. Photo By: Alexandra Lindelöf.

The Central Library is the biggest branch in the city with its nine stories, and a square footage of 497,652. They have, on average, 3,000 visitors per day. Close to the entrance, just a few meters away, stands several shopping carts filled with belongings.

“There are certain things within the rules of conduct that are budded up against, a little bit more, with folks that are experiencing homelessness,” said Surratt.

Due to those rules, carts and bigger bags cannot be brought inside. The same goes for bedding. That is why they are parked outside. Some, seemingly unattended or chained to a bike rack, others, accompanied by someone.

“There’s ways that people find, to be able to come in and access some of our services,” said Surratt.

Carts outside the Central library.
Due to the library’s rules of conduct, people that are experiencing homelessness has to park their carts outside before entering the Central Library, as seen in the photo. Photo By: Alexandra Lindelöf.

Most of the services that the library provides, are for everyone. But there are a few programs that people who are experiencing homelessness, use more frequently. The Workforce Development Center is one of them. Located at the Central Library’s fifth floor, they arrange workshops to help people find, and get jobs. If you sign up for their service, you also get an additional hour of internet access every day, adding to the two hours the library already provides.

Zuri Williams is a career agent at the Workforce Development Center. She often meets people who are experiencing homelessness to help them find jobs, using the many tools that are available online.  

“Internet access is a very big deal for a person who is experiencing homelessness, “ she said. “The Internet is where you find everything. And just imagine, how boring would your day be without access to the Internet? Even to play a game or watch something on YouTube. In addition, you can learn things for free.”

“I know what they’re going through”

Traylor consider herself fairly internet savvy, and she had had websites for a long time, even before being homeless. But not everyone knows how to use the Internet. Or a computer. At Father Joe’s Villages in San Diego, the Employment & Education Services arrange classes that teaches those skills, amongst other things. The class that covers basic computer knowledge is one of its most popular classes. Every month, between 20 to 30 participants complete the class, according to Raymond Saigh, Career and Education Program Manager.

Saigh has worked at Father Joe’s Villages for 14 years. For 13 out of those 14 years, he was an instructor. In the classroom, he taught participants how to use the mouse, how to email, and how to browse the Internet, to begin with.

“It’s really hard to search for work if you don’t know how to use the computer,” he said.

Going in to this job, Saigh himself had very limited knowledge of how to use a computer.

“I learned it myself from scratch, so I understand how to teach people,” Saigh said. “And I know what they’re going through.”

Raymond Saigh.
Raymond Saigh in on of the two computer rooms at Father Joe’s Villages. Photo By: Alexandra Lindelöf.

Anyone who is registered at the Father Joe’s Day Center, can participate in the classes, or use the computers. That is a great asset for a lot of people. Most mornings, the two computer rooms are very busy, according to Saigh. The computers are not only used to apply for jobs, but also to fill in applications for food stamps or general relief, and to find housing, to name a few things.

“It’s difficult for anybody to get housing without using the internet,” said Saigh. “That’s hard.”

Some websites, such as Facebook and other social media platforms, are blocked on the computers in Father Joe’s Villages. To access those platforms, most homeless people that Saigh meets, use their own phones or go to the library.

An uphill battle

According to Rhoades, the connections we have online are not only important for support and well-being, but also for things such as finding jobs. Being able to, not only maintain social relationships with our most intimate circle of family and friends, but also people outside of that, so called weak ties, is important.

The use of social media and online connections lowers the barrier for making contact with people who we are not that close to socially, or geographically. We no longer have to make a phone call. An email or a message on a social platform might be enough, and that could make all the difference. Therefore, the use of Internet should be viewed, not as a luxury, but as a vital lifeline for people who are experiencing homelessness, to stay safe and connected.

“If you want to see someone move back into society, if you want to see someone find a job, find housing,” she said. “All of those, are things the rest of us do online. And I think, take for granted.”

Being able to go online and having, what Traylor calls a virtual life, was one of the factors that eventually got her off the streets after six years. In November 2017, she finally got an apartment in Washington state.

“It’s been a real uphill battle for me every step of the way,” Traylor said. “It’s been an uphill battle for me to try to be taken seriously, to hire me. But online forums, and things like that, have been a path to getting access to a minimum wage or better income.”

The blog generated a small income due to the organic traffic, and Traylor also started resume editing and freelance writing while on the streets. That is something she has continued doing even the past few months, after she moved into her apartment. She still doesn’t make a lot of money, but she does make her own money, and that is a step on the way.

“It’s not from charity,” Traylor said. “I have a potential future there (working with editing and freelance writing), unlike standing in line for a soup kitchen.”

 

Data methodology for this story

Interactive map

To create the interactive map, this reporter used data from The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. To make it easier to navigate this reporter used different shades, that indicates how many people are experiencing homelessness. The darker the color, the larger the homeless population. With easy navigation in mind, this reporter also changed the state abbreviations in the data, to the states’ full names. Additionally, the states in the data that were irrelevant when making the map, was deleted. The states that were deleted are: Guam (GU), Northern Mariana Islands (MP), Puerto Rico (PR), Virgin Islands (VI), District of Columbia (DC).

Charts

To create the charts, this reporter pulled data from The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s original Microsoft Excel file, using only the columns State and Total Homeless, from each year. On a separate sheet, the homeless population in the U.S., and California, every year from 2007 to 2017, was listed. Using that data, two separate charts were created to show the change over time, in the U.S., and California.