Daily Herald, George LeClaire) MANDATORY CREDIT, MAGS OUT, TV OUT, AP photo
ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. — With competition so fierce, becoming a standout on Twitter, Facebook and other social media is a challenge for anyone.
Imagine achieving it while homeless.
For AnnMarie Walsh, attaining social media celebrity from the streets and shelters of the Northwest suburbs meant using the Internet at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library or searching for places to charge a hand-me-down phone that demanded cash for minutes.
Walsh's savvy landed her a spot in a documentary called "Twittamentary" and a trip across the country to speak at a glitzy Los Angeles theater for the "140 Characters Conference."
But perhaps the 41-year-old's biggest coup was finding a place to live after more than five years of homelessness, thanks to a social worker who connected with her through Twitter.
One of Walsh's motives for tweeting and posting on social media sites was to help others understand people who are homeless.
"They need to sit down and talk to someone who is homeless once in a while and find out more of the story," she said. "Most of them think that homeless people are all criminals, on drugs, alcoholics. They think we don't try to get out of homelessness and that we aren't successful at anything. Some (homeless people) have college degrees and because of the economy got laid off."
Walsh's 4,079 Twitter followers (she's (at)padschicago, though she has no affiliation with Public Action to Deliver Shelter) put her way behind the millions seeking news from Lady Gaga or President Barack Obama. But her tweeting and other social media activity have earned her a 50 rating on Klout.com, respected in the world of social media for its ability to gauge influence. The average Klout ranking is about 20, the site said.
Besides telling her followers about homelessness, Walsh tries to help homeless people who ask for advice — such as where to find a shelter in Wisconsin or who might be offering a job for someone with their particular skills. She also accepts gifts and donations through her sites.
One of her boosters is Audrey Thomas, executive director of Deborah's Place, a Chicago organization where Walsh has had a room since April in a North Side building that offers housing for homeless women with disabilities.
A little over a year ago Walsh found transitional housing with the help of a hospital social worker who met her at a gathering for Twitter users, then sent her a message through the site.
Thomas said Walsh uses social media wisely to seek resources and build a community of support.
"And she talks about the issue of homelessness. People can understand it's not a character trait, not a personality type. It's an experience," Thomas said. "Anyone of us could have a series of unfortunate events. And they can recover, move on."
Thomas said social media is empowering, allowing homeless people to help each other, rather than be at the mercy of an organization or agency.
"The experience of homelessness is disempowering and disenfranchising. You go into the system and have to rely on people for bathrooms, showers, clothes, anything that you need," she said. "You need their help for basic human needs, let alone assistance at really getting back on your feet. This lets you take back some of your own power. Access to the Internet lets you look up and find resources in a community yourself."
Walsh's messages can be about any number of things: homelessness or trying to reduce some of its stigma; her personal issues; the menu at a soup kitchen; something that upset her; even being scared while sleeping in an alley.
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