THE BLOG
09/14/2014 01:16 pm ET Updated Nov 14, 2014

Why We Should Empower Homeless People with Technology: Meet James

Over the years several people experiencing homelessness have reached out to me online. Each experience in itself was unique and always beyond amazing. Ann Marie was the first and she taught me so much about homeless people using the internet. Rd was another, and both women are now off the streets in a large part due to social media.

James is homeless in New York City and he was recording his video blog and posting on YouTube out of an Apple Store. He recorded a vlog thanking Invisible People and We Are Visible, so I just had to meet him. As luck would have it, Marcia Stepanek invited me to NYC to record a new podcast Chronicles of Philanthropy is producing on cause video, and once that was over, I started to walk to meet James at the Apple Store.

I have to say walking into the Apple Store itself was kind of intimidating. It's one of the biggest I have visited and that afternoon it was packed. I only know James by his closeup face in the camera and started to walk around the store looking for someone that may look like him. After walking around a little there he was recording into a Macbook Pro with all kinds of people around him.

My first question to James after some small talk was about the Apple Store allowing him to spend time on their computers. James said he is respectful and for the most part they just leave him be. He said a few security people know he is homeless, and occasionally he'll be asked to move on if he's been there too long, but he said everyone is very kind. Interesting, that particular Apple Store is open 24 hours so James spends a good amount of time there. James said libraries often give an hour or less.

I want to thank Apple Stores for being so awesome! The issue with marginalized people is not always the hardware, but the ability to access the internet. Starbucks is also good about allowing our homeless friends to use their WiFi. Other fast food places do or don't depending on the management. This really is an important issue, which I'll address more in a bit, but how are people to better their lives or just find the help they need if they cannot get access to the internet?!!

We left the Apple Store and I asked James if he was hungry and if I could buy him lunch at a place of his choosing. We walked a few blocks and James picked out a fancy Asian restaurant that had the most delicious soup dumplings. I take homeless friends to eat in restaurants often, and I normally don't share much about it, but this experience was a little different. As most places in NYC are, this restaurant was very small. James sat across from me and a young well-dressed woman was seated to my left. We all were so close it was as if the three of us were together. Of course, James and I mostly talked about homelessness and how he survives in NYC. We didn't speak to the girl nor did she speak to us, but she heard clearly every word we said. I wanted to say something, but didn't quiet feel it was the right place or time to do so. As soon as we left James turns to me and says: "that girl just got an education in homelessness", which really blew me away. Our conversation was respectful and honest. James is intelligent and very much aware. It was a meal I will never forget!

James has zero income. He does not have a phone. Because of his past, it's nearly impossible for him to find a "normal" job. The shelters in New York City are overcrowded so he would rather sleep outside. His only escape is the few hours he spends at an Apple Stores connecting to all of us online. It really hit me how liberating that was for him, and how limiting at the same time. Most all of us take the internet everywhere we go these days, but for James, he is dependent on a retail stores's computer and WiFi. I figured we could change that a little.

After we recorded this video I sent out a tweet asking if anyone would like to help me get James a tablet. Two wonderful people responded and off we went to Best Buy. I let James pick out whatever Tablet he wanted, and to make the experience even better, the sales clerk loved helping a homeless man pick out just the right tablet. She even went and asked him for his YouTube channel after James told her he had a video blog.

James then took me to an atrium he knew had Wifi and we then proceeded to setup his new Asus tablet. He decided that the first photo he was going to take with his new tablet would be of me so I took one of him at the same time, which is now my new favorite photo.

Following James online this last few weeks has been amazing. He can now access the internet wherever he can find Wifi, and not just at the Apple Store. James has always had a positive attitude, but you can tell the freedom of a mobile device has changed his life for the better.

This is not the first time I have bought a homeless person mobile technology, and being honest, I wish I could do it more often. Sadly, the general public still does not see how liberating and important technology is to someone on the streets. Raising money for clothes or food, which is needed, is easy compared to trying to get people to help purchase mobile technology. This experience with James really showed me that new pants or a ham sandwich can help him, but only for a moment - and clothes and food can't help him get off the streets. One of the first apps James downloaded was a phone app so he could make phone calls. A ham sandwich cannot do that!

Ann Marie, when she slept in an alley in Chicago, would tweet out that she didn't feel alone because all of us where there with her, and in a way we were. Technology can help with badly-needed social interactions for populations that are isolated such as seniors and formerly homeless people placed in housing. For those still on the streets, technology give purpose and a path to finding the support they need.