A deceptively simple scheme involving the humble cell phone is running in New York. It gives homeless people the chance to reach out digitally to a world which, when confronted in the flesh, is often uncomprehending or hostile towards their plight.
With no access to the communication methods that most people take for granted, the homeless cannot broadcast their point of view easily. This is why a group of interns at an advertising firm launched their project. Boasting the imaginative title, “Underheard,” the program provides prepaid cell phones to a small number of homeless New York dwellers.
With 24-hour access to the Internet, the subjects who initially received the phones were encouraged to Tweet regularly. After some basic coaching on the ins and outs of tweeting, the newly empowered homeless individuals – all men – soon had their own followers on Twitter. By means of these 140-character messages, a vivid picture began to emerge of the reality of living on the streets in New York City, an environment which contains many dangers, not least from plummeting winter temperatures.
Only modern technology could enable them to reach such a wide audience. One source of statistics – the Youth Service Opportunities Project – reports that an incredible one out of every 20New Yorkers has known homelessness at some time. City authorities report that during 2010, the overall figure for the homeless in New York rose by a staggering 50 percent. Nevertheless, the 21st century has seen lower numbers overall than previous decades.
The advantage of pre paid cell phones hardly needs stating. Underheard’s lucky recipients naturally are at liberty to communicate as they choose. To date, however, each has followed instructions to adopt Twitter, and the upshot is that anyone in any location around the world can tune into the thoughts and impressions of this handful of individuals, who have thus gained the status of minor celebrities.