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Tweets2Rue Helps Homeless to Help Themselves Through Twitter

BY Antonella Napolitano | Monday, July 21 2014

"You are not invisible" - Tweeted by @Kanter57640, one of the Tweets2Rue members.

While most solutions to homelessness focus on addressing physical needs -- a roof over the head and food to eat -- one initiative in France known as Tweets2Rue knows that for the homeless, a house is still not a home, so to speak: the homeless are often entrenched in a vicious cycle of social isolation that keeps them invisible and powerless.

Homeless people are “fully-fledged people and citizens, who have much to share and often wish to get away from their isolation,” it says on the Tweets2Rue website. Using Twitter is a way “to encourage solidarity beyond the usual circles of support.”

The initiative, also presented during the fourth edition of PDF France, aims to radically change homelessness by giving the homeless a voice through Twitter.

The project began last November with five homeless men between ages 24 and 47 who were given cell phones and taught how to use Twitter: from that moment, Manu (@115toimeme) in Paris, Sebastian (@DjamaikaPtiseb), Nicolas (@nickopompons) in Limoges, Patrick (@kanter57640) and Ryan (@usher226) in Metz started tweeting about their lives, from the problems of finding a place to sleep to the behavior of people towards them, as well as treatment by the police.

David Cadasse, a Tweets2Rue co-founder, remained in constant contact with each of them.

Tweets2Rue was designed in 2012 in the context of a social project called Génération Réactive. The director Emmanuel Letourneux explained to me in an email, “A group of young people living in the excluded suburban areas had drawn a comparison between the way French public opinion and media looked down at them to the situation of homeless people." They were both voiceless and this voicelessness created a form of "discriminatory storytelling.”

Tweets2Rue originated from that reflection with two main objectives: the first one is letting the homeless speak for themselves and the second one is empowering them to create a community of people that could help them.

"5 police officers for 1 homeless" - @nickopompons tweeted

Another account, @tweets2rue, was set up to collect and share the most interesting content and create an alternative method of storytelling.

Today, the collective @tweets2rueTwitter account and those of the five homeless men involved in the program have around 10,000 followers. They have also received more than 150 media mentions in France and abroad.

While the success of the initial five accounts was promising, there are around 140,000 homeless in the country. According to a 2013 study by Insee, the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, homelessness has increased by 50 percent in urban areas. In Paris, homelessness increased by a staggering 84 percent between 2001 and 2012, according to a study released last month by Insee and the Paris Urban Planning Department (APUR).

The face of the homeless are changing as well. They are becoming younger (23 percent are under 30) and there are now more women (41 percent) and children (29 percent) than before. “Insecurity has changed its face," said Dominique Alba, the director of APUR.

Tweets2Rue founders had originally asked homeless women to join the project as well, but none accepted: "You have to expose yourself to many stressful situations and the women didn’t dare,” Letourneux said.

"Russian TV is in Metz today for a report on homelessness" - @kanter57640 tweeted

In January, Patrick Mongeon, one of the homeless men, decided to document the condition of homeless people all over the country.

Over a few weeks, Patrick left Metz and toured several French cities, telling his followers about life on the streets and meeting some of them in the process.

The organization of Génération Reactive helped him by blogging the findings of his road trip: “Patrick's road trip has been followed on a daily basis by the TVs & newspapers of every region he went,” Letourneux told me. “These daily meetings with the press, and his daily phone calls to our team have empowered him and made him capable to interact, for instance, with the audience at PDF France,” he added.

The roadtrip activities also led to a job for Patrick, I'm told.

The man used to be a truck driver and, after divorcing his wife, he started drinking and then lost his license, which eventually led to homelessness.

During Patrick's road trip, the director of a truck drivers union saw him on local TV and decided to get in touch with him. "He gave him a second chance because he liked the road trip and Patrick's determination," Letourneux said.

The union is paying for Patrick to get a new truck driver's license, so that he will be able to return to his former job.

The other men didn't do as well in terms of employment. One of them, Manu, ended up being deported to Italy because he was an undocumented migrant from Cote d'Ivoire. Another, Ryan, tweeted about wanting to kill himself, but later told the organizers that the responses he’d had from followers had helped him get through.

According to Letourneux, the project revealed that there was a generation of generous people “who can engage in solidarity and help others, but would not join or donate to NGOs, [that] often treat them as people who need assistance as too fragile to be exposed.”

As Letourneux reflects on the choice to begin with five people, one thought is that while it worked well, it led to an excessive personalization, explains Letourneux by email. “Though it was very effective in drawing attention and empathy from the public, [this] does not help to link the individual situations to the general problem of homelessness, which is a political problem,” he says. 

Génération Réactive will then work to promote collective initiatives of “spontaneous solidarity”: crowdsourced solutions, crowdfunding, public demonstrations and petitions.

But, most of all, the next step is to train and empower, not only more homeless people (up to 30, Letourneux says), but also NGOs and activists in treating not just the symptoms of homelessness but also the isolation and lack of social network that perpetuates it.

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