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.
"I'll comment that I'm thinking about a homeless person who I met. One guy was hit by a train in Arlington Heights. I think of him sometimes. I have a picture that I downloaded off a website," she said. "Or I'll meet somebody on the street who's homeless with a walker and cardboard strips attached to his feet — in the winter. I'll tweet a picture of this man's feet. It's heartbreaking."
Walsh's tag, "social media celebrity," came from Tim McDonald, whose business is social media and whose resume includes founding Lake County Social Networking.
"I was just fascinated in the early days of Twitter that somebody homeless living on the street could keep in touch and communicate with as many people via media like Twitter," McDonald said. "Somebody like me didn't normally have the opportunity to understand how somebody homeless survives on the street."
McDonald said Walsh can tell more of the story of homelessness on Facebook and her blog than on Twitter, where the length of messages is restricted.
Social media is just human experience and conversation that happens online, said Mark Horvath, a formerly homeless man who travels the country encouraging homeless people to tell their stories on the website invisiblepeople.tv. He hopes to spark conversations that will encourage people to change the way we address homelessness.
When Horvath was in Chicago a few years ago he met up with Walsh and introduced her to the team making "Twittamentary." That led to the bus ride to Los Angeles, where she appeared onstage with Horvath at the 140 Character Conference, named for the number of characters allowed in a Twitter message.
A few women bought Walsh new clothes, and when she went to the event's parties nobody would know that she was homeless until she told them.
"It was very powerful," Horvath said. "Most people would not roll down their windows on the exit ramp to ask homeless people their stories. This changed people's paradigm."
It's important to get stories directly from homeless people rather than politicians or academic researchers, he added.
"We need to hear from AnnMarie living in alleys in Chicago. It's personalized. You have to do something about it."
Walsh said she suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome because of abuse both as a young person and as an adult, and if she found work again a rheumatoid problem would make it difficult to stand for long.
She became homeless after being divorced and losing her job with a mail order pharmacy. Over the years, agencies rejected her for housing because they did not like things in her medical history and were concerned that she might not succeed, hurting their statistics, she said.
She has not lost hope of reviving a relationship with her two children, who live with her ex-husband. He did not want to be interviewed for this story.
And despite now having a roof over her head, she still "thinks like a homeless person."
"I'm still in that mindset. If not for Deborah's Place I would be homeless," she said. "I don't know how I'm going to pay my phone bill or get to the doctor's office on the bus. I still have to depend on other people to help me just like when I was homeless."
Gifts for Walsh come from all directions, including a woman she knew in high school and reconnected with on Facebook and perfect strangers impressed that she had her hair shaved as part of a St. Baldrick's campaign to raise funds for research for childhood cancer.
Restaurants give her free pizzas and gift cards. But one generous establishment is so fancy she is waiting until a friend can accompany her because she wouldn't want to go there alone.
Walsh has recruited about six homeless people to social media, with half of them sticking with it.
"Twitter is our community," she said. "Anytime something comes up, you can tweet. There's always somebody there."
Information from: Daily Herald, http://www.dailyherald.com