Wireless on the Streets

A Homeless Blogger Finds an Online Community

Crystal Evans blends in well at the cafés she frequents in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. With her peaches and cream complexion, purple hair, and retro eyeglass frames, the 22-year-old from New Hampshire convincingly plays the part of a contemporary Cambridge youth.

But if you frequent the same haunts as Evans, where she whiles away her time with a wireless laptop and cell phone, you will likely pick up on a few patterns. You might notice, for example, that Evans is getting a lot of wear out of her hooded, Harvard University sweatshirt. Or that she keeps a stuffed backpack with her at all times.

That's because Evans has been living on the streets for several years. Raised by strict, Born Again Christians, Evans fled home as a teenager and later dropped out of Bob Jones University, the fundamentalist college notorious for its racial, religious, and sexual intolerance.

Evans chronicles her struggle with homelessness and her recovery from her religious past in the online Web log Being Homeless. She's one of an increasing number of the down and out and disenfranchised who are venting their frustrations—and finding friends and support—on the Web.

"Blogs fill a human need for community and social interaction," says Bee Lavender, a 32-year-old blogger. "Journals give people a forum to announce or invent an identity, and find other people to talk to, or at least people to listen."


Screenshot from beinghomeless.com

Just as every prisoner says he's innocent, every homeless person claims he is a victim of circumstance. Evans is no exception—many of her essays and blog entries detail the story of how a brain injury, which she sustained in a car crackup two years ago, has left her with short term memory loss and vertigo.

Evans says she has been unable to keep a job ever since the accident.

Though Evans isn't the only "homeless blogger" out there, she has caught the attention of local newspapers, and of bloggers and editors of online journals, including Lavender, who edits the online version of the magazine Hip Mama. Indeed, Evans's notoriety is quickly changing her fortunes and, in the eyes of some people, undermining her credibility. With her laptop (a gleaming new Dell, a gift from a friend), cell phone, and well-connected friends, Evans is looking less like a homeless person these days than a minor celebrity.

Evans is not so far removed from the streets, however, that she can't remember the humiliation of being spat on by passersby, or of being mistreated by shelter workers.

"Homelessness could happen to anybody," Evans wrote last summer. "All it takes is a fire, loss of a job, a sudden illness, or disability and you could find yourself in my shoes."

Evans's blog, which she started two years ago through the online community Live Journal, also documents, in exhaustive detail, her struggle to receive public benefits, and her daily thoughts about what she reads in the newspaper.

As an aspiring writer, Evans is finding that her blog is a useful way to get input from readers of her nonfiction works-in-progress.

Evans tells chilling stories of life and death on the street, and of creepy nights spent in New England shelters. She describes her first night in a shelter in Marblehead, a fishing village north of Boston. "I walked in. And it felt like every eye in the room was on me. P--- helped me bring in my stuff. Then he hugged me goodbye. He has it easy like most other Americans—aware of homelessness but can walk or drive away from it. I'm stuck in it."

But just as people look askew at beggars on the street who claim to have PTSD or AIDS, some questioned the authenticity of beinghomeless.com, and challenged Evans, who at first wrote under a pseudonym, in responses to her posts.

So last summer, Evans "outed" herself, she says, to prove to her critics that she was the real deal. "Things changed pretty dramatically once I stopped publishing the blog anonymously," says Evans. "It validated my story. People had thought I was a fake. Now they can see me as a real person."

Since she started using her name, Evans has been landing writing assignments for local "street papers" and guest lecturing at New England colleges. The Boston Globe has written two stories about her. And she will be making an appearance on the Sharon Osbourne show, she says.

Even as Evans lays out her own case in interviews, she derides the blogs kept by other homeless people, such Nashville-based Kevin Barbieux, who solicits handouts through his website the Homeless Guy. (Evans does not solicit donations on her site.) Evans calls many of these other homeless bloggers "homeless by choice," meaning that they lack valid excuses for not being able to work.

Evans, who is applying to Harvard this spring, acknowledges that laptops won't help many homeless people. "Everyone has something different to contribute," she says. "Some can write, some can paint. Others can volunteer."

But for Evans, blogging has been a boost to her self-esteem.

"I'm still homeless, and I still feel like trash," says Evans. "But now it's different. I've found a whole group of people that have come to respect me."

 
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