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HOMELESS PEOPLE RECLAIM THEIR POWER ONLINE

by ch@nce Saturday, Oct. 07, 2000 at 6:43 PM
coh@sfo.com 415/346.3740 468 Turk St. san francisco, 94102

The Homeless People's Network was the big news when the North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA) met in Edmonton this past summer. By unanimous vote, HPN - a discussion list exclusively for homeless and formerly homeless people - became the first online member to join the ranks of the scrappy, ink-stained papers that make up the association.

errorHOMELESS PEOPLE RECLAIM THEIR POWER ONLINE

By Sabitri Ghosh

The Homeless People's Network was the big news when the North American Street Newspaper Association (NASNA) met in Edmonton this past summer. By unanimous vote, HPN - a discussion list exclusively for homeless and formerly homeless people - became the first online member to join the ranks of the scrappy, ink-stained papers that make up the association.

Themselves a recent phenomenon, dating back to the late 1980s, street papers are defined in one of two ways: as a means of economic support for the homeless and/or a public forum for their issues. HPN
broadens that second definition even further.

People made homeless join debate

This small plot of cyberspace was carved out three years ago by Tom Boland, a soft-spoken yet intensely articulate Boston activist with the motto "Nothing About Us Without Us."

As Boland told workshop participants at the NASNA conference, he was among many homeless people who took advantage of the Internet in the mid-1990s when public libraries made it freely available.

With the help of Tim Harris, the publisher of a Boston street paper, he logged on to the new medium. "For 10 years, we've been arguing about solutions to homelessness," Harris told Boland. "Now the Internet's
here, we can do it across the continent."

But Boland soon learned that the Web's take on homelessness was no different from that of other media: "Basically, you know, poor people are
broken, let's fix 'em, pretty much the same bilge I was seeing in corporate media and in academia. It really bothered me."

A Homeless Discussion list existed already, which Tom felt was mainly for service providers and scholars. As one of the homeless people posting to the site, Boland couldn't take "the way I was being characterized by people self-selected to be my helpers. A number of us on that list agreed that we who had 'been there' needed a safe space online to define ourselves in our own terms, outside the 'personal-deficit' model which blamed us for our homelessness."

Boland compares the exclusion of homeless people from the debate to other systemically discriminated-against groups, like women and racial
minorities. "With poor people it's the same thing," he told NASNA participants. "Like them, we are reclaiming our own role, insisting on our own rights to form our own roles. We are going to choose our own leadership, our own aims, our own e-mail list."

International discussion group emerges

So he gave himself an even more formidable challenge than getting online: getting a discussion group together of people who knew what it was like to be homeless. Launched in September 1997, the list began with about 20 members and has now grown to over six times that, with members from the U.S., Canada, Britain, Germany and Australia.

Lasting friendships have been formed through the list and "sometimes," Boland says, "homeless people in dire straits e-mail me or other list members to ask for personal help."

For subscriber Lucinda Houston, who was formerly homeless, HPN serves as "a forum to relate topics from our perspectives and speak about serious issues that concern us. For instance," she says, "we were
evaluating shelters the other day, how painful some of them were."

Another regular poster to the site is William Tinker of Northfield, N.H. Last year, he received a used computer "and started posting onto HPN, telling of my experiences on the road. Tom Boland was very helpful," he adds, "as I was so green I kept sending duplicates to people, who complained. But Tom, being very patient, helped me get my feet on the ground." Tinker has now started his own list.

"Definitely, we have formed a global world community," Tinker says of HPN. "I believe that we have become a prompt or a second conscience to the leaders of our world because now the whole world watches and sees what is being put forth. We are all watchdogs for human rights." Toronto mayor Mel Lastman can attest to Tinker's diligence: he has received several letters from him on the deaths of homeless people on Toronto's streets.

HPN raises awareness of policies elsewhere

At the NASNA conference, San Francisco activist Chance Martin remarked on how "too often, we tend to be narrowly focused on our own cities" and praised HPN for letting people know what hurtful policies are being exported abroad. "We've got to turn it back," he said. "Homelessness is not problem-specific: it's a growing problem worldwide."

HPN has this breadth, but it also has depth. "HPN has helped us to address issues which politicians and non-profits would rather not notice - the criminalization of poverty and drugs, police brutality and sweeps of
homeless people from business districts," Boland remarks.

"To mobilize concerted political action is a goal which I devoutly hope that HPN advances. Yet, as a listworker, I'd rather be the 'switchboard operator' who enables folks to do this in ways which they, not me, choose."

END FORWARD

RELATED LINKS & CONTACT INFO
[from HPN listowner Tom Boland]

New Catholic Times (Toronto, ON)
Tel: (416) 361-0761 Fax: (416) 361-0796
Independent Catholic bi-weekly newspaper focusing on social justice,
lay-involvement and ecumenism.

North American Street Newspaper Association
http://speakeasy.org/nasna/

International HOMELESS Discussion List
[highly recommended by Tom Boland]
http://csf.colorado.edu/homeless/


***********************************************************
HOMELESS PEOPLE'S NETWORK
9000+ articles by or via homeless & ex-homeless people
Year 2000 posts
INFO & to join/leave list - Tom Boland
Nothing About Us Without Us - Democratize Public Policy
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