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Homeless woman becomes Twitter celebrity

Homeless for a few years, a Chicago area woman found a community through social media, as well as thousands of followers and eventually a home.

By Giselle Smith Jan 4, 2012 6:18PM

Losing her job, getting divorced and a number of health issues caused AnnMarie Walsh to become homeless five years ago, but she found her voice -- and a community -- on social media.

The 41-year-old suburban Chicago woman slept in an alley when she couldn't get into a shelter and wrote about her experiences as "PadsChicago" on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and a WordPress blog, mostly using free Internet service through the Arlington Heights Memorial Library or a prepaid hand-me-down cellphone.

Her goal was not to complain about her plight, but to help people understand homelessness better.

"Most of them think that homeless people are all criminals, on drugs, alcoholics," she told the Daily Herald. "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 social media activities eventually connected her with a social worker who helped her find transitional housing. They also got her noticed by Mark Horvath, founder of Invisible People, a video blog that profiles homeless people around the U.S.

Horvath connected Walsh with the team making "Twittamentary," a documentary about the popular social media tool, and Walsh was invited to attend a 140 Character Conference (named for the character limit for Twitter messages) in Los Angeles. There, she appeared onstage with Horvath -- and no one knew she was homeless until she told them.

"It was very powerful," Horvath told the Daily Herald. "Most people would not roll down their windows on the exit ramp to ask homeless people their stories. This changed people's paradigm." Post continues below.

Another advocate for Walsh is Audrey Thomas, executive director of Deborah's Place, which offers housing for homeless women with disabilities in Chicago and where Walsh has had a room since April.

Thomas applauded social media for empowering homeless people -- and Walsh for using it wisely, according to the Daily Herald:

"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," Thomas 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."

A minor celebrity with an important message

Walsh received a flurry of attention when her story was picked up by NBC Chicago and The Huffington Post, among others, and she has been labeled a "social media celebrity." But even as her followers increase (almost 4,800 when this story was posted), her Twitter presence is miniscule compared with celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher, the first tweeter to top 1 million followers (he now has more than 9 million).

Walsh's impact reaches beyond those 4,800 followers on Twitter and her 467 friends on Facebook, however.

"My @Klout score is 51. I improved it by 3 points over the past 30 days!" she tweeted on Jan. 3. "measures people's influence on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn and finds the most influential people on particular topics … how often they post messages, how often the messages are reposted or retweeted, and how much impact they have online," Forbes says. Scores range from 1 to 100, and the average is about 20.

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