Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Profile: Homeless Nation, a web site that originated in Montreal, has become a national forum to feature stories of Canada’s street people, providing them not only with a voice, but an opportunity to connect with non-homeless societies.

After finishing his first film in 1997, which aimed to relay the stories of Canada’s itinerant urban population, Montreal filmmaker Daniel Cross realized five years ago that film was an inadequate medium to convey his expansive research.

Forced to exclude the stories of the hundreds of men, women, and children he met living on the streets in The Street: A Film With The Homeless, Cross found an alternative in the internet’s emerging social networking and media technologies.

“I learned through the filmmaking process that people on the street had lot to say a lot to express and that the internet provided the perfect platform to host a broad and plural all-inclusive interactive dialogue,” Cross said.

Conceived in 2002, but officially released in 2005, Homelessnation is the product of Cross’s vision to bridge a digital communication divide that he feels isolates and alienates the homeless community from the non-homeless.

“With most people’s lives increasingly focused around computers and high-speed media, homeless people only stand to become more and more ostracized and misunderstood. One of Homelessnation’s main goals is to give the homeless community a public forum of representation through avenues created by New Media,” said Alexandra Yanofsky, National Coordinator for Homelessnation.

She cited instances in British Columbia where applications for certain social assistance programs are only available online.

Homelessnation’s 3,000-member community includes homeless people throughout Canada as well as formerly homeless people, advocacy workers, and concerned Canadians. Enforcing the concept of a unified nation among the homeless, the site calls its members citizens.

Cross explained that Homelessnation’s popularity has transformed the site’s infrastucture.

‘’Thousands of people from the streets are using the site, and are members. We’re experiencing a continual shift of control, so much so that the site becomes sustainable by the street community itself,” Cross said.

“As far as relationships with the non-homeless, [one] cannot help but learn new things, hear new ideas, new voices, and lose pre-existing negative stereotypes from the site,” he added.

Homelessnation allows members to create an email address and a unique profile that provides for a blog, photo log, video hosting capabilities, and adequate hosting for podcasts. They also have access to a variety of forums that have been used to communicate various subjects, including organizing rallies and sharing information and experiences.

While some members use the network to communicate with friends or family, others routinely post footage of protests, police brutality, or news updates relevant to homelessness.

The site fosters community and interaction among its users and, according to Yanofsky, provides an outlet for expression that could unite them with non-homeless socities.

‘’We feel that a dialogue between the homeless and non-homeless communities can’t exist if people aren’t allowed to express themselves creatively. We’re here to encourage people to strive to create,” Yanofsky said.

Homelessnation is partially funded by governmental and private film and art associations and the Canadian Human Resources and Social Development Centre. Volunteers maintain the site with the aid of 16 paid outreach employees in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, who work in shelters, day centres, and on the streets to encourage street people to join the site.

Originally published in The McGill Daily: Monday, February 11th, 2008 | Volume 97, Number 35

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