SF advocate sees opportunity for homeless on social media

It all started when San Francisco resident Daniel Polk walked past the Walgreens at 24th and Castro streets in April with his two children, who asked their father why a man was sitting on the street. Polk responded that the man was likely without a home and had nowhere else to go.

Then Polk saw a woman give the man a sandwich. The barrier was broken.

“That kind of gave me the idea that this is somebody I could approach and talk to a little more,” Polk said.

He learned the man's name, Edward, and asked if he could take their picture together. Edward said yes — and that photo eventually helped Polk realize how powerful social media could be in the lives of San Francisco's homeless population.

Polk is the director of global citizenship at the Hamlin School and for the past six years has volunteered with various homeless organizations in The City. When he posted the photo of himself and Edward on his LinkedIn page, he promised that for every like or comment he received, Polk would donate a dollar to Edward.

The post ultimately resulted in $22 for Edward, and Polk has since published other photos of the pair to help raise money for the disabled man. Most recently, a post last week garnered 500 likes or comments.

“By vouching for him [on social media], that makes it safe for people to donate and say things that, generally speaking, are really positive,” Polk said of his efforts to connect Edward with the virtual populace.

What Polk envisions is “a way to create something a little more systemic [in which people] are looking at profiles of those who were homeless — somebody who is kind of advocating for [the homeless population] and humanizing that whole process, rather than the regular anonymity that homeless people are stuck with right now.”

Social-media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest could help the more than 6,400 homeless individuals in The City gain access to services, raise money through crowdfunding, and connect with friends and family, Polk noted.

“It would put them in a position where they are having more access to knowledge that's going to help them,” Polk said.

Polk said he hopes to collaborate with nonprofits or organizations that want to help the homeless population join social-media platforms.

“Somebody like Edward … he's somebody I could approach and bring to the library and create a profile with,” Polk said.

Dr. Margot Kushel, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco whose primary research involves the homeless population and their interactions with health care systems, said homeless residents could benefit from using social media and that there has been a push in recent years to provide them with cellphones.

However, Kushel noted number of challenges with helping the homeless get online, including that about half in San Francisco are older than 50 and have little to no experience with technology. Finding access to technology and charging devices is another barrier, she added.

Such challenges are why the St. Anthony Foundation helped establish a technology lab in 2008 that today has 37 workstations and offers various classes each month. The most popular class teaches basic computer skills, in which each student is set up with an email account and any other kind of social-media account they seek out.

“Being homeless can often lead to extreme isolation, and technology is a way to reduce that isolation and really reconnect people to a lot of different things,” said Karl Robillard, a spokesman for the St. Anthony Foundation, which plans to double the size of its technology lab in the next six months.

Other San Francisco-based homeless organizations are seeking to increase virtual awareness as well. The Coalition on Homelessness, which has published Street Sheet since 1989, plans to bring the newspaper back online in December after an 18-month hiatus, said Jennifer Friedenbach, the nonprofit's executive director.

Bringing concerns of the homeless population online can have an immediate effect, Polk noted.

“The smile on his face was incredible,” Polk said of when he told Edward how many likes his picture received. “It was sort of beyond his way of thinking to think that there were people out there who cared about him in that way.”