Homeless woman uses Twitter to bring awareness to homelessness

By Sophia Coleman

Celebrity status on Twitter is usually reserved for pop icons, trendy designers and reality TV stars. But now, AnnMarie Walsh is joining the ranks of social media popularity.

Boasting approximately 6,000 followers after six years of homelessness, Walsh, 41, is something of an anomaly. Without a computer or a home of her own and possessing a cell phone she calls “prehistoric,” building a substantial Twitter following would appear to be an impossible feat. But in the two-and-a-half years since she started her Twitter account, Walsh has been able to find support and housing through the social networking site.

Walsh began using Twitter after attending a Tweet Up event hosted at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, 500 N. Dunton Ave., Arlington Heights, Ill. She had heard of Twitter before and was looking for a way to vent her emotions and contact others, even if only through the Internet.

Christina Stoll, programs specialist at the library, was at the event and helped teach Walsh and others in the community how to tweet.

“I was amazed by how creative and intelligent she is,” Stoll said. “She took her situation and saw past it. She stayed positive and found a way through Twitter to not only help herself move forward but to also help other people.”

The Tweet Up event stuck with Walsh, and after having a little taste of the social media site, she couldn’t let it go. Every chance she had, she would use the library’s computer to write new tweets. Walsh became so inspired that she used her hand-me-down, pay-as-you-go phone to tweet SMS messages.

“I would tweet my feelings [when] I was scared at night and sleeping outside,” Walsh said. “Because of my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I was more sensitive to the sound around me.”

Walsh suffers from PTSD because of complications from her divorce, losing her job and being unable to see her two children for the past four years.

Her life dwindled down to sleeping in alleys and behind stores, where owners would sometimes give her food. Dilip Patel, owner of Gateway Newsstand in the Arlington Heights Metra station, even trusted Walsh to watch his store if he had to leave the station.

While kindness was part of what inspired Walsh to create her Twitter account, she said her main motive was to spread the word about homelessness and help people understand those who are living in that situation.

“A lot of people have this stigma that a homeless person will be a homeless person forever, that they are all drug addicts [or] alcoholics that have criminal records and that they don’t want to change,” Walsh said. “That is totally untrue.”

Stoll said Walsh will be speaking at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library as part of the Human Library Series, an event that invites people with interesting life experiences to share their stories. The audience is given the opportunity to ask the speakers questions they’ve always wanted answers to but were maybe too afraid to ask.

“I think most of us have seen homelessness, but we tend to shy away from it,” Stoll said. “Through [Walsh’s] use of Twitter and our Human Library Series, people can ask her questions that they would normally never ask a homeless person.”

Walsh’s use of the social media site has not only brought her widespread fame, but in April 2011 it landed her housing at Deborah’s Place, Chicago’s largest provider of supportive housing exclusively for women.

Because of Walsh’s many tweets, she said people have been inspired to donate to homeless shelters and charities. She even received a donation from actress Alyssa Milano, who sent an autographed copy of the book she wrote that was to be auctioned off for charity.

Walsh said almost every day, her number of followers goes up by approximately one hundred. She said she has been overwhelmed and overjoyed by the support she has received, including gift cards, clothing and hygienic products—all of which she has given to shelters and other homeless people.

Walsh was even given the opportunity to be part of the “140 Conference,” a seminar about Twitter in Los Angeles. She was also part of “Twittamentary,” a documentary directed by filmmaker Tan Siok Siok.

Walsh has received much support from Mark Horvath, founder of HardlyNormal.com, InvisiblePeople.tv and WeAreVisible.com—three sites designed to get the stories of the homeless out into the world.

Horvath was homeless twice in his native L.A. He had a job working in television syndication but after a series of events ended up homeless on Hollywood Boulevard. He managed to rebuild his life, but then the economy declined. After a series of layoffs and 19 months of unemployment, Horvath began InvisiblePeople.tv, a video blog created to broadcast the stories of homeless people across the country and other parts of the world.

He said he started the video blog to give homeless people a voice because the general public had received information about homelessness from marketing materials, like homeless services or the government, which he said are usually spun to raise money.

“It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s not the truth,” Horvath said. “We need the consumer, which is the homeless person, to be blogging and tweeting and Facebooking and talking about the services because homeless services [are] broken.”

Horvath said Walsh contacted him after hearing about Invisiblepeople.tv. He filmed a clip of Walsh and has since kept in contact. On occasion he helps her with her pay-as-you-go phone so she can continue helping Chicago’s homeless community with her tweets.

“The whole response has been overwhelming,” Walsh said. “I would have never imagined that I would be here. I signed up as a lonely homeless person looking for an outlet to share information, and it has turned into so much more.”

To follow AnnMarie Walsh or donate items to the homeless, follow @padschicago on Twitter. To attend the Human Library Series at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, 500 N. Dunton Ave., Arlington Heights, Ill., on Jan. 29 at 2 p.m., register at Ahml.info.