Living on the streets, but at home on Twitter

(CBS News) George doesn't have home or a bed. He doesn't have whole lot of money.

He does, however, have a Facebook profile and a Twitter handle. And a cell phone with Wi-Fi.

"George" was the first of 14 homeless people University of Dayton sociologist and criminologist Art Jipson interviewed in a study about how the homeless use social media to connect with others. Free Wi-Fi (whether outside restaurants, in parks, etc.), Jipson found, was not only a popular way for homeless Ohioans to find their next meal, but a great equalizer where they can interact without being judged.

"People think of Facebook as this billion-dollar entity with stock offerings that sells gobs of advertising," said Jipson, who recently presented his findings at the American Sociological Society's Annual Meeting in Denver. "But on Facebook, the 'least of our brothers,' as it says in the Bible, have equal access to all of Facebook's offering and establish a sense of belonging that is based on more than possessions."

Talking to homeless near the University of Dayton in Ohio, Jipson learned they used Facebook and Twitter to look up where they might find their next meal or safe, warm places to sleep.

For some, it was also a virtual support network and a place to socialize.

"No one on the 'net cares if I didn't get a shower yesterday or smell some," said one interviewee, according a summary of the study. "They don't judge me, you know? I feel accepted. I am accepted."

Jipson's research adds to a growing movement of homeless advocacy that preaches the benefits of social media and the web.

The 2011 documentary Twittamentary featured AnnMarie Walsh, a 41-year-old homeless woman whose prolific tweets made her a "social media celebrity" with over 4,000 followers. Using the local library or a hand-me-down phone, Twitter helped her connect to a social worker who helped her find a new place after five years on the streets, according to the Arlington Heights, Ill., Daily Herald. In 2010, the Washington Post profiled Eric Sheptock, a man left homeless after a rough childhood but developed an influential digital voice -- and a sense of purpose -- in D.C. housing policy through Facebook and Twitter.

"Speak up to be seen," exclaims the slogan of We Are Visible, an organization and website started by a formerly homeless man Mark Hovath that aims to empower homeless people with social media through its online community and tutorials. The site includes stories like that of Walsh and Sheptock, where those who own close to nothing connect with others in similar situations and help each other out.

"Suddenly from all over the world, with no geographical restrictions or barriers, people began to speak to me like the human being I once was," wrote one woman, who goes by the Twitter handle @HomelessGirl1.

It's easy to scoff at the concept; some commentators wonder why, of all the ways to spend the little money one has, these homeless people were choosing to buy technology.

But as mobile devices become less of a luxury item and more of a necessity, the Internet becomes increasingly accessible. A 2011 study by researchers at the University of Southern California found that 62 percent of homeless teenagers in Los Angeles have cell phones, a tool Professor and lead researcher Eric Rice said is just as important as food because it can be used to help reduce homelessness.

Jipson explains that in an already over-wired society, access to the internet is not hard to come by. One of his subjects said a church provided him with a phone. Another got the phone from a family member. Others went to the local library to use the computers.

Those who did purchase phones found discounted devices -- no iPhones. His homeless interviewees weren't too knowledgeable in the latest models. A few, however, did have Androids. Some pay-as-you-go phones are as cheap as $30.

"You would assume without the infrastructure it would be very difficult to maintain the phone, but no one mentioned any challenges in that way," Jipson told CBS News. "If they could manage to secure a little bit of money, they could charge the phone while they were having a coffee or an inexpensive burger at McDonald's."

People are generally attached to their phones as it is, but homeless people in particular, Jipson found, had a special relationship with their only gateway to the mainstream world. Jipson said that three people he spoke with named their phones "like the way people name a car."

The project was inspired by a chance encounter with George, who called into his on campus radio show, WUDR. The sociologist said he was shocked to learn that he was homeless when he asked George for an address to send a CD. George was listening to the radio show via his phone, but also said he frequently used it for social media.

"That was really surprising but I think we came to the conclusion -- well, I thought they have every right," Jipson said. "It doesn't matter if someone has a home or the resources they have available. They have every right to listen to a radio show." Or be on Twitter.