It’s easy to ignore someone when you don’t know or care to know anything about them. But it’s different when that person shows up in your social media stream, telling you about a lonely day on the street or simply wishing you a happy Valentine’s Day.
Underheard in New York is an initiative to help homeless New Yorkers speak for themselves through Twitter. Four homeless people — Danny (@putodanny), Derrick (@awitness2011), Albert (@albert814) and Carlos (@jessie550) — were given their own prepaid cell phone, a month of unlimited text messaging and a Twitter account.
The goal was to raise awareness and give a peek inside the daily struggles and unexpected challenges of being homeless in a major urban city. Between January 2009 and January 2010 the total number of unsheltered individuals within New York City rose an estimated 34%; this figure doesn’t include the tens of thousands staying in shelters.
Underheard in New York’s co-creators provided the men in the project with some basic training on how to access and use Twitter. Underheard in New York (@underheardinNY) was developed by Rosemary Melchior, Robert Weeks and Willy Wang, three interns at the BBH advertising agency. They, like all interns, were issued the challenge: “Do something good… Famously.”
The back half of that mandate is sure to cast aspersions on the project’s motives. The team has been careful and upfront about the challenge. Its website reads: “We decided famous was just another way of saying make people listen. Go big. Be heard. Make real change.” Weeks insists the initiative was started with the utmost sincerity.
While Underheard in New York has no direct fundraising component, Weeks hopes it will help people better understand homelessness and inspire them to volunteer or donate to shelters like the NYC Rescue Mission. The Mission helped select the four men, who all sleep there at night. The Mission has a long-standing relationship with BBH.
Weeks explained that these four men serve as a pilot group that the team hopes to expand with more Twitter accounts and voices from the New York area. Although the co-founders will close the initiative after their internships end, Weeks is looking at a bigger picture. “I think for us the project is over when it’s over, unfortunately. But hopefully the project has a lifecycle beyond what we’re doing. Maybe another organization will adopt our strategies, raise awareness.”
Most of the money and support has been coming from BBH, which has acted as advisors and provided $1,000 in funding, most of which has gone to paying for the phones. Accordingly, the four men are typing away on inexpensive, Samsung clam-shell phones. “Part of the point is that that very basic technology works for what we’re trying to do,” Weeks said.
Right now, the four accounts don’t have a ton of followers but they do contain some moving insights about loneliness, hardship and the basic human kindness shown by — and shown to — these four men.
Is a program like this useful only if it can go viral? What did you make of the tweets and will you be following them? Let us know in the comments below.