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'Curbside Internet' for Homeless

'Homeless Nation' connects with people living on the edge.

Peter Tupper 22 Nov

Peter Tupper is a regular contributor to The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

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Homelessness on video, online.

In a small handmade shack under Toronto's Gardiner Expressway, Chris, the shack's builder and resident, uses an old-fashioned TV antenna to listen to the broadcast on a radio, a news report that includes excerpts from an interview with him.

A voice off-camera asks him if the footage was edited without bias.

"What do you expect?" Chris says. "When you do a media interview, you can talk on camera for an hour, two hours, five hours, but when they show this on TV, you're only going to get the 10 seconds here, 10 seconds there, five seconds there. Just a few words, a sentence, that's all you're ever going to get. They're not going to be able to run an hour of videotape straight, showing them following me around and asking me every single question that they ask me."

"That's why we have Homeless Nation," says the man behind the camera.

Connection and expression is a non-profit, government-funded project to connect homeless and poor people to each other, and also to the rest of the world, by giving them control over their own media representation. The site provides e-mail, blogs, forums and hosting for YouTube-style streaming video and audio.

While many homeless and poor people use free e-mail and blogging services, Homeless Nation is specifically intended to be a web service serving the needs of those people. Groups of outreach workers and technicians in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal do the front-line work of getting poor and street-involved people connected.

James Ash has done outreach work for Homeless Nation for four months, using his wireless laptop to get people connected on the street. "They get an e-mail address, but they also get a username and password and what they can do is log in. There's a blogging section so people can write about their experiences and try to connect with friends or people across the country they've lost track of."

Apart from the e-mail service, Homeless Nation users write poetry, announce rallies and classes, trade tips on how to cash a cheque without ID and deal with the other catch-22s of life on the street, and state their opinions about politicians, social programs and anything else.

Project evolved

Homeless Nation was founded by Daniel Cross, a film professor at Concordia University in Montreal. Cross's feature documentary SPIT: Squeegee Punks in Traffic (2001) was based on a young man living on the street and known as "Roach." Ash says, "Daniel had basically given Roach a Hi8 camera to be able to document his life and what was going on in his life. They also worked with another cinematographer who'd go around with Roach and film him. They combined all the footage and released a film called SPIT.

"Roach is actually still involved with [Cross's company] EyeSteel films and involved with Homeless Nation. He accredits the fact that having a camera put in his hand was something life-changing, and made a huge difference in his life."

Cross ended up with more footage than could go into the film, which he put online. Originally, Homeless Nation was going to be an archive of interviews, but the project kept evolving, adding new services and aspects. "We're still always talking about new directions the project can go. That's coming from the needs of people on the street, what they're telling us they want," says Ash.

Today, Homeless Nation is a community of over 800 users. "A lot of people who do use the site are currently on the street. A lot of people who use the site were on the street five years ago," says Ash. "You have people from all different experiences, and part of the beauty of a diverse group of individuals using the site is that it's also a way to challenge stereotypes about homelessness, and challenge stereotypes about what a 'street person' is."

There are plenty of free e-mail and blogging services that can be reached through libraries, shelters and community centres, so providing those is just one of the roles of Homeless Nation. There's a greater emphasis on the participatory media, getting homeless people to communicate with each other and the rest of society.

Recording the Nation

Outreach workers like Ash go out into the field and record first-person testimonials, in text, audio and video. The video clips often have shaky camera work and muddled sound, but the people come through. One clip shows a parody of the game show "The Price is Right," performed at Oppenheimer Park, demonstrating the impossibility of living on welfare. Another is an in-depth interview with Ellen Shonsta, better known as "Mum" to the hundreds of people she provides with food, clothing and medicine each night. A third is a mini documentary about the Gathering Place's annual block party, showing people dancing to live music, having watermelon-eating contests and talking about how the community centre helps stabilize their lives. There's even people talking about how the media portrays them.

Street-involved people can be wary of the media, such as being interviewed by journalists or social scientists. Ash says, "As soon as I mention we're a participatory media project, people get their backs up right away. 'Media,' it's like this scary word. 'You're going to take a photo of me, or you're going to film me doing something.' A lot of people have had bad experiences with being misrepresented."

Ash tells the people he meets that this is something that won't exploit them. "For example, instead of just taking a photo of someone, without getting their permission possibly, without talking to them about where that photo's going to be used, [we're] respectfully saying, 'Hey, we're part of this project. This is what we're doing. Do you want to be involved with the project?'"

Plugging into Vancouver

One June 21, during Vancouver's World Urban Forum, Ash and other Homeless Nation workers connected the Vancouver convention centre to the Downtown Eastside. In Oppenheimer Park, they set up a tent, a folding table, a video camera, a couple of laptops and an EVDO modem donated by Rogers, and recorded interviews with the people who came for the free food and entertainment.

"Sometimes we have to do things like this where we take the Internet to a place where it doesn't exist. We call that curbside Internet," says Brett Gaylor, another Homeless Nation worker visiting from Montreal.

"We did one [project like this] in Montreal called State of Emergency. For a week, homeless people in Montreal set up tents in downtown Montreal and they were clothed, housed and fed for an entire week. We set up a bit of an Internet café there with a wireless partner in Montreal called Ile sans Fils. We were able to patch into their signal and have a similar setup like this."

Debbie Krull, a homeless issues organizer who was interviewed, says, "They're here right at the core. They're approachable. They got a lot of interviews today from a lot of people that usually don't trust the media, because...the Downtown Eastside is always in [news] stories negatively, one way or another, as well as in the film industry.

"Having people come forward and share their stories, in their own words, is really positive."

It's a different way of looking at the Downtown Eastside, which some may be tempted to view as Vancouver's "heart of darkness," where, as is often said of Africa, "nothing good ever happens."

Beyond 'Videodrome'

David Cronenberg's 1982 film Videodrome features the Cathode Ray Mission, a soup kitchen for television. Poor and homeless people sit in a vast space divided into small cubicles and watch flickering screens, alone. The manager, the daughter of a Marshall McLuhan-like media guru, explains that by giving displaced people television, she reconnects them to society. Later on in the same film, the protagonist, a TV executive, on the run from the law, stands next to a homeless man who has rigged up a television set on the street. The television man gestures at an empty hat, asking for a donation.

People can be passive consumers of media, active producers or both. Homeless Nation is a counter-force to the surveillance technologies, a means of self-expression and communication among street-involved people and with the rest of the world.

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