The anchorman sits in a shirt and tie behind a damp upturned skid, a makeshift newsdesk on a sidewalk. The caption reads “HN News Network.” He introduces himself as “Spider,” and then the featured story – the shutdown of the Rain City Shelter on Vancouver’s Howe Street. Voiceover, camerawork and interviews tell the story which follows the conventions of evening news story, but is led by the refreshing perspective of the homeless people who wrote, produced and filmed it.
Homeless Nation.org (HN) is the world’s first and only website for and by the street community. It is a national news organization, comprised of five individual sites under its umbrella, each representing Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto, Montreal and St. John’s. The site’s organizers train people from the street community to use digital media technology in order to bridge the digital divide and tell their stories.
Documentary filmmaker and Eyesteelfilm founder Daniel Cross (The Street, S.P.I.T. – Squeegee Punks In Traffic) founded and created the site with some friends, including Mila Aung-Thwin and Brett Gaylor. While making those films, he heard more stories from the homeless community than he was able to use. He felt they should be told and was compelled to make that happen somehow. With the emergent user-friendliness and media-handling capability of the Internet, a platform emerged that provided a way for people to participate. Now that the technology is accessible, everyone’s stories are coming out.
If awards were grants, HN would be flush. The Canadian website recently won the 2009 UN-based World Summit Award for e-Inclusion & Participation and an international New Media Award for non-profit.
The following is the HN mission statement:
- Build and strengthen street communities, both virtual and actual, across Canada
- Provide access to the Internet, media and training to Canada’s homeless population
- Encourage discussion and learning on social issues surrounding homelessness
- Create dialogue between Canada’s homeless and mainstream society to counter isolation and marginalization
- Recycle and re-purpose technology for use by Canada’s homeless communities
- Break down stereotypes and barriers in our society
- Community development uniting resources serving the homeless
- Create a national collective voice by and for Canada’s homeless population
One of the most innovative elements on the site is a missing person reporting system and wall. Because the homeless population are relatively transient and already suffer low visibility amidst mainstream society, they are a more vulnerable demographic. The missing person reporting system provides a platform to inexpensively transmit alerts with identifying descriptions and images to a nation-wide community. On the whole HN mitigates the social isolation that accompanies homelessness.
In addition to its facilitation of community organization, HN is a compelling way for mainstream Canadians to understand more about a day-in-the-life of their fellow citizens. The more I explored the site, the greater was my enjoyment. It holds up as a model that could be adopted and adapted in communities around the world.