Homeless man in D.C. uses Facebook, social media to advocate for others like him

By Nathan Rott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2010; 12:57 AM

Eric Sheptock has 4,548 Facebook friends, 839 Twitter followers, two blogs and an e-mail account with 1,600 unread messages.

What he doesn't have is a place to live.

"I am a homeless homeless advocate," he often tells people. That's the line that hooks them, the one that gives Sheptock - an unemployed former crack addict who hasn't had a permanent address in 15 years - his clout on the issue of homelessness.

His Facebook friends and Twitter followers include policymakers, advocates for the homeless and hundreds of college students who have heard him speak on behalf of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Being homeless has become Sheptock's full-time occupation. It's work that has provided him with purpose and a sense of community. But it's also work that has perpetuated his homelessness and, in a way, glorified it.

Sheptock, 41, wouldn't take a 9-to-5 job that compromised his advocacy efforts or the long hours he spends tending to his digital empire, he says. He wouldn't move out of the downtown D.C. shelter where he has slept for the past two years if it would make him a less effective voice for change.

"Too many homeless people have come to look up to me, and I can't just walk away from them," he says in a recent blog post titled "Tough Choices." "My conscience won't allow it."

Having 5,000 friends on Facebook is more important to Sheptock than having $5,000 in the bank. And he lives with the consequences of that every day.

'Lots of drama'

At 6 a.m., the lights flicker on at the Community for Creative Non-Violence, where Sheptock has occupied the same top bunk since he arrived at the 1,350-bed shelter in 2008.

Eleven other men share a 15-foot-by-18-foot room on a floor that teems with more than 200 people on a typical night. There's not much privacy, Sheptock says. Younger people tend to be loud, older people cranky, and there's drama. "Lots of drama," he says.

That's why, on most days, Sheptock takes a shower as soon as he wakes and then walks the four miles from the shelter near Judiciary Square to Thrive DC, a nonprofit organization in Mount Pleasant where he gets a free breakfast and Internet access. On the days he can afford it, he'll take the bus.

His income varies. November was a good month: He made $330 from his blog posts ($25 a pop at Change.org) and his speeches ($40 for those he gives in the Washington region and $100 for those farther away).

It's not enough to pay rent, he says, "not in this city." But it's enough to pay his cellphone bill and buy the occasional snack or piece of clothing.

Today, he'll take the bus.

Pressuring city officials

Breakfast is served at 9:30 a.m. at Thrive DC.

Sheptock, who is wearing a black hooded sweat shirt and cargo pants that hang on his wiry frame, mows through two plates of beenie-weenies, roasted potatoes, coleslaw and bread. He does his laundry and then hustles to Thrive's computer lab, which opens at 11 a.m.

Sheptock is usually there on the dot, says Nathan Mishler, Thrive DC's volunteer resources manager.

"Anyone who deals with homelessness knows of Eric," Mishler says.

Ask city officials about Sheptock, and they'll describe the countless e-mails they've gotten from him complaining about the D.C. government's performance on homelessness.

In a city where 6,500 people have no place to live, affordable housing is scarce and shelters are full, Sheptock "aims to pressure them into actually being effective," his Facebook page says.

His e-mail signature includes his cellphone number, links to his blogs and a slogan: "Outgoing Mayor Fenty has a headache and his headache has a name - Eric Jonathan Sheptock." Then he offers Fenty's office number.

Not everyone appreciates being on the receiving end of Sheptock's constant gripes. One administrator at the Community for Creative Non-Violence says he has marked Sheptock's e-mail as spam because "he's always condemning us for one thing or another."

But others see Sheptock as an important portal to an often voiceless community.

"What he's been great at is surfacing information," says Scott McNeilly of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. "We have mechanisms in place to respond when there are problems, but often times we don't know that those problems exist."

This year, Sheptock contacted Laura Zeilinger, who oversees the city's homeless services, because of a water leak in the women's shelter at CCNV.

"It's taken the city longer to fix this water leak than it took them to stop the oil leak in the Gulf Coast," he told her.

She quoted him, and within weeks the leak was fixed.

Revolution by tweet

Three of Thrive's six computers are in use this morning. A woman mumbles into her cellphone, her long nails clacking against the keyboard as she takes an online typing class. Two men, still bundled in heavy coats, fill out job applications.

Sheptock logs in and finds 27 new Facebook messages and 74 updates but doesn't look at any of them. They are usually event information or group notices, he says.

Instead, he checks his wall, which he has plastered with links to articles about poverty and help for the disadvantaged: the dangers of a proposed residency requirement for D.C. shelters, how to give during the holiday season, a soup kitchen locator.

But no one has commented on anything he has posted.

He goes to his e-mail and discovers 1,601 unread messages in his Yahoo inbox.

"I got it down to about 900 a month ago, but it's shot back up since," he says. "I can't keep up with it."

Most are mass e-mails: newsletters, press releases and spam. One is a public hearing notice from a fellow advocate, which he forwards to other advocates.

"I don't think I'd be able to do much of anything without the Internet," Sheptock says.

After Thrive DC's computer lab closes at 1 p.m., he usually relocates to the Library of Congress or one of the city's public libraries to use their computers.

Most days, Sheptock says, he spends five to six hours online. Social networking, he says, is the key in the battle to make affordable housing a right.

"The tea party started with a tweet, you know," he says.

A haunted childhood

It was Facebook that reconnected Sheptock to his family - the people who took him in after he'd been abandoned and probably abused as a baby.

There is much he doesn't know about what happened. He can only point to the long, thin scar on the back of his head and repeat what he was told: He was found in a hotel room in New Jersey at 8 months old, head bleeding, skull fractured.

After three craniotomies and five years of foster care, he was adopted into a strict Pentecostal family, becoming the 10th of what would eventually be 37 Sheptock children. Thirty of the children were adopted like him; many had disabilities.

Although doctors once predicted that Sheptock's head injuries would make it impossible for him to succeed academically or socially, he graduated from high school in 1987.

"He could do so many things very well," says his mother, Joanne Sheptock, 73, who didn't hear from Eric for years. "He could do math like you wouldn't believe" but also was quiet, shy and slower than other kids.

After high school, Sheptock worked as a freight handler and maintenance man before getting into a dispute with his boss and walking off the job. On Feb. 14, 1994, the day before his 25th birthday, he received his last full-time paycheck.

He gradually fell into homelessness and started using crack cocaine - an addiction he conquered, but not before serving multiple stints in jail, including one for 10 months, for possession and other drug-related offenses.

In 2005, he came to the District to protest the war in Iraq and wound up moving into the Franklin School Shelter.

It was there, amid a long-running battle with the city over the shelter's future, that Sheptock began to emerge as an advocate. And it was there that he realized how important it would be to learn to use a computer.

When the Franklin School Shelter closed in 2008, many of its 300 residents were offered transitional apartments. Sheptock was not one of them, he says.

He's okay with that, although people frequently don't understand why.

"I can hear the guy sitting in the living room, saying why doesn't he get off his [butt] and do something, he's doing all of this other stuff," says Neil Donovan, executive director for the National Coalition for the Homeless. "It's not that simple, though," especially not for someone who has been living in shelters as long Sheptock has.

Studies have found that after six months of homelessness, people undergo a "psychological and sociological change," Donovan says. They stop seeing themselves as a person experiencing homelessness and start seeing themselves as a homeless person. Their situation turns into their identity.

Homelessness, Donovan says, "becomes who you are."

Work to do

Sheptock's hands hover above the keyboard in a pearly white research room at the Library of Congress.

His backward hat bobs to the Arrested Development Pandora Radio station as he focuses on deciphering a fold-creased letter lying next to him.

He is transcribing the scribbled handwriting of a woman who lives at his shelter into a formal request for cleaning supplies so residents can deal with a bedbug infestation. It is signed "Deborah."

She has asked for his help with the letter, he says, because she can't use a computer.

So with his Facebook page and blog open in separate windows - surrounded by his thousands of friends and followers - the homeless homeless advocate types.

In a few hours, Sheptock will return to the shelter, his bunk bed and his 11 roommates. But for now, he has a job to do. He looks comfortable sitting there, legs splayed out, hunched over the keyboard.

He looks at home.

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