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On HomelessNation.org

The Governor General winner celebrates a great website

Gadget filming a Montreal outreach worker. Photo: Simon Cossette

“You can’t go home again” —Thomas Wolfe

The perennial ‘problem’ of homelessness is off mega-media’s radar, but not the sites of documentary filmmakers. In our brave new digital world, info-technologies enable citizen journalists to bring truth to light, and light to truth. The digital dream of documentary is to inform a better democracy. I call it Documocracy, fusing documentary to democracy, reflecting the Bread and Puppet maxim: “ART has to be CHEAP & available to EVERYBODY.”

A prime example of ‘docu-cratic’ media making is HomelessNation.org, an interactive documentary engaging several thousand homeless voices across Canada. Consider it YouTube or MySpace for the homeless. Except that for my money, measuring social value, Homeless Nation is worth a million GooTubes. It emerges from a history of work championed by altruistic filmmaker Daniel Cross, whose Montreal-based EyeSteelFilm socially engaged media.

I worked with Dan, executive producing his earliest feature, The Street: a Film with the Homeless. That humanist essay film was made with the homeless, instead of about them. The filmmakers immersed themselves for six years within the homeless community, bridging the gap between compassion and action. With subsequent films like SPIT: Squeegee Punks in Traffic, Cross and his co-conspirators developed a methodology which goes to the heart of ‘documocracy’; literally giving power, and cameras, back to their subjects.

Now, Cross and his friends have helped to make the world’s first website created by and for the homeless, where the majority are voices from the street. They’re the ones who share stories, overturn stereotypes and experience the therapeutic power of self-expression. Together, they create legitimacy, act as an informal national lobby, mobilize protest and alter public opinion.

Outreach teams are already operating in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Quebec City and Victoria, supported by a national network of in-kind community partners. Coordinators from within the street community train, network and empower by teaching basic film and web skills. Small street teams record, edit and upload first person homeless audio, text and video testimonials, creating an interactive network of voices. The project’s ‘netizens’ (2,000 and growing daily) develop personal profile pages, publishing blogs, videos, podcasts, wordwork and music clips. They connect to their world, and ours, with i-chat, e-mail, and on-line forums. They discuss dreams and struggles while connecting to friends and families.

Homeless Nation includes street people, part-timers and mentors like Cross, Richard Boyce, Mila Aung-Thwin, Gadget, Roach (docmaker of S.P.I.T., Roach Trip, Punk le vote) along with what Cross calls a gazillion volunteers. Partners have names like Smoke, Aaron, Kolin, Ali, Janelle, K, Rose, or Shauna. They work with shelters, women’s groups, street orgs, homeless newspapers and First Nations’ Centers.With Re-Boot Canada, recycling e-waste and refurbishing computers, they are installing Internet labs. At Montreal’s Old Brewery Mission, Canada’s second largest shelter, they’re starting workshops and teaching older guys newer ways of dealing with life. The National Shelter Network provides an infrastructure for training and access, supplying social services, survival information and networking opportunities for otherwise isolated people.

What’s on HomelessNation.org? An upload from Chris Gardiner, a homeless man living under Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, evicted from his home. Outreach worker Gadget’s clip of the police’s reaction to an antieviction protest. Blogger Sharky tells how he managed to get off the street and find himself a job: “I’ve come some way since being on the streets. And, I still have some way to go. Thanks to this public computer, I’m getting brand new opportunities, and the future is starting to take shape.” In an on-line memorial to Pigeon, a young man who died before his time, his mom posts a nod to the community. Brandi changed her life: over the last few months she’s been clear, thanking Youthlink InnerCity and HomelessNation and all the great friends she’s made on her travels through life. Expect the unexpected.

For Cross and team: “Homelessness is an unchecked social virus growing ‘un-prescribed,’ devouring families, communities and cities. It cannot be ignored, sidestepped or spin doctored away. If we continue to accept this status quo of invisibility (nameless faceless voiceless), an entire generation of homeless people will pass away without a trace. This activism must begin immediately before more people die.”

The non-profit Homeless Street Archive in partnership with EyeSteelFilm, the NFB, Human Resources Skills Development Canada and Concordia U runs Homelessnation.org. It was developed with the Canada Council, Conseil des Arts du Québec, and the CIFVF. It needs support.