Can Social Media End Homelessness? A Look at New Research

By Lindsey Habenicht


Note: Please welcome to our team Lindsey Habenicht, a Seattle University strategic communications junior. Lindsey just got back from a highly regarded student research conference, where she shared a unique perspective on homelessness. Here’s her report.

“3,772.” I paused and watched people exchange confused glances.

“3,772,” I continued, “That’s how many men, women, and children were without shelter during King County, Washington’s three-hour street count. That number is an increase of 21 percent over those found without shelter last year, yet it is still assumed to be an undercount.” I paused again — this time to see looks of disbelief.

“Are you surprised?” 30 heads nodded yes. “Case-in-point, popular media suffers a severe void when it comes to sharing stories of homelessness.”

This is how I started my presentation at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research, April 16-18 at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Wash. I had been invited to share my research as one of 3,000 students at the conference.


The National Conference on Undergraduate Research used social media to build excitement for the days ahead by utilizing the hashtag “#NCUR2015.” VIew the Flickr album from the conference here. Photo by NCUR 2015.

My paper, “Social Justice in Social Media: An Assessment of Social Media’s Impact on our Social Responsibility to Help the Homeless,” aimed to answer the question: does what we see on social media enhance our perceived social responsibility to help people who are homeless?

I explained to my audience of about 30 students from across the nation that, having moved to Seattle, I’ve become keenly aware of my responsibility to help my neighbors living on the streets.

But, contrasting with my personal values, the media continues to perpetuate stereotypes that criminalize people living in poverty, telling us that we should focus on the behaviors of homeless people — like panhandling and sleeping outdoors — instead of focusing on the ways we can keep those behaviors from becoming necessary.


Everett is one of many cities that has considered criminalizing panhandling. Here, our partners at Washington Low Income Housing Alliance share some good news on Facebook.

The Takeways from our Research Project

Flashback to fall quarter 2014 when this research project all began. My Seattle University public relations research class, taught by Dr. Caitlin Ring (@caitlinring), coordinated a series of focus groups and invited attendees to discuss social justice in social media. The participants were primarily Seattle U students, age 18-30, who represented diverse disciplines and were avid social media users.


Dr. Caitlin Ring is the Assistant Professor of Strategic Communications at Seattle University. Her current work focuses on hate speech in social media. Photo courtesy of Seattle University Arts and Sciences.

From the focus groups, three major themes that pertained to my personal research question emerged:

  1. People use social media as an avenue of seeking quick, unfiltered news.

What this means: Social media users appreciate the quick access to information via their social media apps. But even still, traditional news sources were noted as most relevant when searching for reliable news.

What we can do: Continue to share information that links to a direct, reliable source. Though our personal, 140-character tweets are well intentioned, our followers will be more apt to read and consider information being put forward by a source they recognize and trust.


One of the news organizations I follow on Twitter is the BBC, which uses its political following to spark conversations about homelessness. Photo Courtesy of BBC Question Time.

  1. Social media is recognized as a catalyst for awareness, not action.

What this means: Promoting awareness for a cause via social media can be done very passively. We heard a resounding “no” when we asked participants if they had been motivated to help homeless people by something they had seen on social media.

It’s easy for social media users to hear stories and immediately place the offline responsibility in the hands of someone else.

What we can do: Encourage your peers to take the next step! They’ve already chosen to educate themselves; now, help them determine what they can do to help and work to hold them accountable. Our partners do a great job of this, as they spark conversation and provide links where viewers can take action.


Here, the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance uses social media to support a partner organization, United Way of King County, intensifying its call to action by encouraging followers to follow a link and urge legislators to fund 211. Photo from WLIHA’s Facebook page.

  1. There is a lack of constructive media attention regarding the representation of people who are homeless.

What this means: Homelessness is hard and people don’t want to talk about it. It’s so much easier to close our eyes – – but that doesn’t mean that we should.

What we can do: Continue to listen and share stories, like those on Firesteel. Or, when a traditional news organization does a great job researching and reporting this complex issue — like this recent series on KUOW, Puget Sound Public Radio – share that too. Social media is a platform that, when used to its fullest extent, will make homelessness something that is personal to everyone.

Firesteel not only uses social media effectively to advocate, but also teaches the rest of us how to do it. Here is one of their excellent “Spark Change” podcasts, on how to use the new StoryCorps app for storytelling.

Follow The Leader: Mark Horvath

Mark Horvath, a pioneer in this field of using social media for social good and the subject of the powerful documentary “@home,” is someone who knows the ins-and-outs of successful social media advocacy.

I learned about Mark when I joined this project and was immediately intrigued by his success in pairing social media and homelessness. After watching the film, I was so impressed by his charisma and ability to connect with people that I immediately tweeted at him.


I was delighted to connect with social media pioneer Mark Horvath on Twitter. His success in storytelling is a reflection of his dedication to using social media as a means of engaging audiences.

Mark — also known as @hardlynormal on Twitter — displays an intense commitment to using digital tools to empower homeless people to share their experiences and uses his following to (1) start conversations about homelessness, and (2) end it altogether.


Mark Horvath’s digital storytelling has been powerful enough to move conversations offline. Many people have found housing as a direct result of his efforts. Photo by

In the “@home” documentary, we see Mark’s social media work incite great changes in communities across America and viewers hear incredible, first-hand stories of resilience.

“@home” is a documentary that has given me hope as we step into this digital era. Mark’s social media traction has enabled him to create an army of advocates — a community we can all join via smartphone.

So, there is potential.

The Q&A: What Students Asked Me

Lindsey NCUR

The National Conference on Undergraduate Research provided a great opportunity for me to learn how other universities are working to combat homelessness. Most notably, I connected with a student from George Mason University who has initiated the development of some great tools, such as a food pantry and student meal funds. Read more about their projects here. Photo courtesy of Lindsey Habenicht.

Starting conversations and getting people thinking about homelessness was of primary importance to me as I presented this paper.

The presentation ended with an incredible opportunity to discuss homelessness with students from across the nation. People were interested in the concept of social media as a means of inciting change, especially considering its sporadic nature. The frequency of posts is random at best, and as social media continues to develop, older apps will lose some traction.

That said, I don’t disagree; social media is relatively unpredictable and will continue to grow. For now, we should use social media for the tool that it is and accept its level of influence as an avenue of awareness. It shouldn’t be the only tool in our advocacy tool belt, but we should learn to use it in the most effective ways.

One student asked, “As social media users, what can we be doing to effectively support the efforts of homeless advocacy?”

Here’s where you can start:

  1. Use social media to follow local influencers, like these tweeters:

@WLIHA (Washington Low Income Housing Alliance)

@chinrichsen_su (My supervisor, Catherine Hinrichsen)

@UnitedWayKC (United Way of King County)

@LisaGustaveson (Our colleague, Lisa Gustaveson)

@FiresteelWA (Firesteel)

@ColumbiaLegal (Columbia Legal Services)

@HousingConsortium (Housing Development Consortium)

@DavidWSeattle (David Wertheimer from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation)

  1. Follow Mark Horvath and his journey to tell stories of homelessness. Then, start a conversation by hosting a screening of @home with your friends or colleagues.
  1. Read Real Change and join Firesteel. Then, link your favorite stories to your social media accounts.
  1. Remember that we’re all human, and we need to connect in person most of all.

2 thoughts on “Can Social Media End Homelessness? A Look at New Research

  1. Pingback: Social Media Advocacy: Whose Story Is It Anyway? | Faith & Family Homelessness Project

  2. Pingback: Happy Hellos and Hard Goodbyes, 2016 Edition

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