Social Media and Community Building: A Homelessness Advocate Perspective

Carey and her daughter Maggie, photo thanks to
Carey and her daughter Maggie, photo thanks to

Interview with Carey Fuller, conducted by Erin Murphy, Director of Education and Advocacy Network at the YWCA Seattle I King I Snohomish

Carey Fuller is a single mother of two. She is also experiencing homelessness and resides in a mini-van. While looking for employment, Carey is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in health service administration. She is an active social media user and advocate for the Kent homeless community.

I had the privilege of interviewing Carey last January. Little did we know when we scheduled our interview, that it would be dumping snow at that time in the Seattle area! So we adapted and our in-person meeting turned into a Skype chat–technology to the rescue!

Can you tell me which social media accounts you have or manage?

We have We Are Visible and There is also We are Visible on Facebook. I have an account also on, and I also blog on HuffingtonPost.

How many followers or fans do you have?

Well, it depends. Me personally, I have close to 2,000 followers [on Twitter] but the other sites have a lot more because those were started by Mark Horvath. For example, right now has almost 17,000 followers. We Are Visible has 3,700 followers on Facebook alone and there’s more than that on Twitter. on Facebook has about 6,500 followers. And they are growing everyday. That number keeps changing the more we get the word out there. The more people find us. That’s one of the reasons I talk as much as I can about homelessness and advocacy. Because even though you might hear something about it from some reporter on the mainstream news, its not the same as when you’re talking to the homeless people themselves.

 What was your motivation to first try out social media?

It was interesting. It was kind of a fluke thing that I found I saw this post that somebody had written on there. So I wrote a letter to the editor thinking it was just going to get thrown in a file, but to my surprise, that editor published it within 30 minutes. That’s when Mark Horvath saw it and he got talking to me—he was the one that encouraged me to try social media because I had no clue about it. He kept saying, you know, we need to hear from moms like you, we need to hear from real people…so I blame him for all of this [laughter]

And how long ago was that?

That was about a year and a half ago.

A year and a half. Not too long ago, and look at that following you have.

Yeah, it just keeps  growing. I think it is the human stories—the reason why people will get drawn to it.

Do you think there are tangible benefits to using social media?

I know there is. I know for a fact that social media helped Gandalf, that guy that I write about, basically a homeless vet dying of pancreatic cancer. I was able to get him a hotel during the Christmas holidays because people read about his story. Otherwise, I don’t know where he’d be right now, if it hadn’t been for folks. The other thing is helping a lot of the homeless youth when the weather gets bad. Or if they need help that other services can’t provide, social media has helped to get the word out and people have just volunteered on their own to come down and meet these kids.

It sounds like there is quite a community online that is responding to what you’re sharing. What advice do you have building community like the one that you have?

Well to be honest with you, before starting going online, I started ties into the community physically. Because it’s one thing to just go online and talk to people but if you’re going to be working in a certain community, it’s better that they actually see you. See you being there on a regular basis, getting to know them and that you really are interested in helping them. There’s a big difference. When you are building an online community, if you talk from your experiences, it gives you more credibility. I mean, it’s really hard to project this kind of humanity just making it up. You can’t do that. You have to actually meet people. One of the things I’ve done is actually put faces to the stories I’m talking about and engaging with people online because that’s another part of it. You’ve got to spend the time talking to people, making those connections, and networking with other people. It’s time consuming but I think it’s worth it.

How do you put a face to the story?

One of the things I do, if I do a story on somebody, I put them on videos and then I put the videos on YouTube so people can hear from that person themselves, not just me making up things. The other thing is that I always try to put a picture with the story that I’m going to blog about because this way people can say, “Hey, I know that guy,” or “I’ve seen that gal” or I know where that is” and they can see this is real stuff happening in their own backyard.

How can one become a part of such a community?

There’s all kind of things you can do.One of the biggest things is just getting the word out. One of the things I get a lot of is people sending me emails, talking to me online and asking, “Hey what can I do? I only have so much.” I say “Well, here’s the thing. You don’t have to help somebody far away. If you see somebody standing around and you know they are homeless, you don’t always have to give them cash.” That’s the other big misconception for people-they are afraid of where their money is going. But there are lots of ways to help. One of the things I like to do is get food cards for people, like at McDonalds or Jack n the Box because you can get those in $5 amounts. One of the reasons I encourage that is because even though the homelessness communities will find the free feeds they don’t usually have them on Sundays. Or there might be a day where there’s a gap and no feeds so they are kinda hanging around out there waiting for the next day.

Other things that help—socks or sundry drives. What I do is give out a lot of hand warmers, especially since the weather has turned cold. Because people are actually outside. If they can’t get to a shelter or refuse to go to a shelter because of bad experiences, one of the things that is good are the big boxes of hand warmers because once those things have started they can stuff them into their clothes and their sleeping bags so they don’t get hypothermia. That’s the number one concern for a lot of the homeless people out here.

Do you have any examples of how you have mobilized your online community?

Well if something comes up, I’ve been known to start petitions, especially if it’s something that directly affects the homeless community in an adverse way. Once you put the story out and explain to people what is going on and why you are starting a petition, they usually respond on their own. That’s one way of generating a tangible response. If something is clearly not right, people want to stand up and say something about that.

The other way is just going out and talking to people and explaining things they probably didn’t know. That’s how I started. I just started telling people about my experience and the truth versus what they assumed was the truth. It opened a lot of eyes that way. Once you do that, they’re going to be curious enough to find out more for themselves.

We spoke a little bit over email about the structural change that needs to happen. How do you see social media playing a role in bringing about structural change?

Well, here’s the thing. I speak from my own personal experience. Being an advocate, I’m a little freer than people who are under contract. If you are part of a certain group, there are some things you can’t do. A program administrator can’t go out there and rock the boat, so to speak because if they do, there’s a legitimate fear that they are going to lose funding. So I understand that. For an advocate, we don’t have that hanging over us.

One of the things that I like to say is that there is a difference between an advocate for the homelessness and an advocate who has been homeless and understands what it’s like to be homeless. There’s a few things you’re going to miss if you haven’t had the experience. I’m not saying everybody go out and do that—it’s not a good idea!

But I see a lot things that could be streamlined. I mean, some things they can’t help, that’s just the way it goes, but there are some things that really don’t need to be there. Those are the things that I target. The number one way I encourage organizations to figure out where they are at with that is to call their own numbers and talk to whoever picks up the phone as though you are somebody who is in desperate need of help. There is no better way of gaging what that’s like until you do it.

Carey demonstrates calling shelters in the video above. You can see more on her BLOG

Has anybody followed through on your advice and done that?

Quite a few people have done that and they’ve sent me responses saying, “Oh, you were right!” That’s one of the reasons I put a YouTube video out there called Calling for Help [see above]. I called a few places and recorded myself so the general public can see what can be expected. I don’t do that to slam anybody, I do that to show people who are looking at or experiencing homelessness and may have a false expectation of what people run into. Sometimes people can fall into a depression and start acting that out. I’m trying to prevent that. On the other side, policymakers and program providers, when they see what it sounds like when somebody is calling their number, then they can get a really clear picture of areas that need change. If they can streamline things so it’s more efficient, that’s great but that is easier said than done.

What are some social media challenges that you have experienced? 

I would say the challenge is that it still really is a people thing. It’s not really a technology thing and you’re going to be dealing with all kinds of people. The biggest thing is whether or not you are putting something out there that most people want to look at. Let’s face it, homelessness isn’t something that people are going to flock to when you can go find out what celebrities are doing! TV programs can seem to be more important than what is going on in our own communities. That’s one of the biggest challenges—you’ve got to be relevant.

What are some of the greatest rewards you’ve experienced using social media?

I’d say it’s the people that I didn’t know I impacted or helped out, just from things I’ve said or shown. That was the main reason I did it anyways, because when I first got out here, there is kind of a shock phase. No one can ever really prepare you for this situation. Well, one of the things I don’t like to do is get hung up on self pity so I thought, maybe there is a reason for this and maybe I can turn it around. I noticed there were a lot more people flooding the streets because of the economy. My first idea was to reach out to them to say it’s not the end of the world and you can make it through this but will need patience because it’s not going to happen overnight. Just by working step by step with people like that and seeing what they can do, that to me is reward enough. Also when I try to help homeless kids and they turn around and help other people saying that they got that from me. That is one of the best things about building a social media community. You never know which way it is going to come back to you.

Do you think social media can benefit the homeless community?

Oh yes. That is one of the things We Are Visible on Facebook is for and What that does is teach homeless people who might be computer illiterate how to connect online for resources. That’s the number one thing We Are Visible is about. It’s a community by us for us. We have people come onto our Facebook page and saying, “Hey, I’m in this area, this organization is here and we can do this for you,” or “Hey, this person needs help, is anyone in this area?” So yes, social media is a great help for that.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

I was looking at the [Firesteel] site and I think it’s a great idea with potential to make a big impact. The thing about policymakers—I would say hardly any of them have lived the experience. If this advocacy will help them open their eyes to see that the decisions they are making are directly affecting us, whether it be positively or adversely, they need to see it. People aren’t actually going to grasp onto something unless they actually see the reality of it. So I think Firesteel could be a very good tool to get that across.

Thank you Carey (and her daughter Maggie!) for taking the time to share such helpful insight. I certainly hope that Firesteel can be a convener and communicate the reality of what people are experiencing in order to influence our state policies! You can follow Carey on Twitter, Facebook, and

**Note** I had planned to include clips of Carey from our Skype interview because it is always more powerful to hear someone’s words in their own voice. However, here is my tip for the day: when using trial software for the first time, test it out first! I did not and afterwards discovered that the recorded Skype interview  plastered a big “trial” watermark over Carey’s face. So please take away great social media advice from Carey, but also my common sense tech tip to test new (and especially trial) software and tools before actually using them! And have a great weekend!

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