When Leon Daryl Williams Jr. was homeless a few years ago, it wasn't uncommon to find him digging through trash on the streets of New York City. But he wasn't looking for aluminum cans or leftover take-out food. He was searching for spare computer parts.
From the discards he found, Williams rebuilt computers piece by piece.
"I was always trying to search out a way to work on computers," he said. "To have something there before me, it was an inspiration."
Williams is part of a growing number of tech-savvy homeless people who use computers and the Internet to stay connected with the world and to reach out to others.
"The overwhelming majority of homeless people are using the Internet as a free, easy and convenient way to hook up with the rest of the world," said Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, a New York advocacy and service organization for homeless men, women and children.
The Job Seeker
Williams said that after falling on hard times a number of years ago, he was left with a broken life -- no home, no money and no idea how he would get his life back on track.
What he did have was a knowledge of electronics and computers from training he'd received before he ended up on the streets.
He honed his Internet skills at the Bowery Mission in New York City. He'd spend hours in the mission's career center searching online for schools to further his education.
He was eventually accepted at Per Scholas, a technical school in the Bronx, and, after a few months there, got a job with Canon Business Solutions.
"It was [thanks to] my ability to navigate the Internet that I was able to find that school," he said.
Williams now works full-time, and has benefits and life insurance. "I'm still on a high now. It's tremendous that it's actually happening."
Melissa Alcorn, associate director of the Bowery Mission Women's Center, said that Web sites like Monster.com, Craigslist.com and even search engines like Google help make job hunting easier for the homeless.
"They can Google the company to find the HR person and where to send their resumes very easily," Alcorn said. She also said that Google is a helpful tool in making sure that companies that post online are legitimate. "I've been able to stop people who have been pursuing jobs that are scams."
Helping Escape Depression
Kevin Barbieux of Nashville, Tenn., has used the Internet to speak his mind in chat rooms and on discussion boards for years.
Barbieux credits the Internet for helping him overcome his social anxiety.
"My opinionated self started to come out in discussions on every subject from religion to politics to music," he said.
Taking the advice of a few other chat room regulars, Barbieux started his own site in 2002, which quickly rose to become one of the most popular blogs on the Internet at the time.
Although still homeless, these days Barbieux can be found around Nashville, hovering over his very own laptop, which was donated by readers of his blog. He says between 500 and 700 people read his blog, thehomelessguy.blogspot.com, daily.
"Whether or not a person suffers from depression, being homeless can be very depressing. It is very easy for a homeless person to just shut down mentally, emotionally, spiritually," Barbieux said. "Being online -- even if just playing online games -- keeps their brains active and keeps them interacting with others."
Besides easing the pain of loneliness, chat rooms can even spark a love connection.
"I knew one homeless guy who met a girl from Canada in an online chat room. They started e-mailing each other. Eventually, she came down here to Nashville to meet him," Barbieux said. "After a couple days, she took him home with her."
While many homeless people are curious about the Internet and want to learn more about computers, they often face almost impenetrable barriers.
"I felt embarrassed to go to an Internet café," Williams said. "People would see my appearance, and it would make me not want to go in."
For others, feelings of inadequacy deter them from logging on to a computer.
"These are people who are vulnerable to discouragement," Tom Basile, associate director of the Bowery Mission, said. "[The Internet] is a technology that they're not that familiar with, and oftentimes it's overwhelming for them. It's already in their minds that it's not in their ability."
To help those who want to learn, many shelters and missions have added computer centers over the years, according to Stoops.
Still, one of the most popular places for the homeless to go online is the public library, which Stoops describes as "the de facto base center for the homeless population."
Although this technology helps the homeless make many facets of their lives easier, above all else, the Internet gives them hope.
"The Internet is not a cure for anything, including homelessness. But it can go a long way toward improving the quality of one's life," Barbieux said. "And if used wisely can lead a homeless person toward a better life."