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Homeless find hope through technology, Internet

“If people on the street don’t have access to technology then they’re going to be left behind,” says Janelle Kelly, Vancouver co-ordinator for Homeless Nation, which offers computer and Internet workshops.

The digital revolution has not been kind to everyone.

While the Internet has fundamentally changed our day-to-day lives and affects everything from how we communicate, hunt for apartments and obtain information, the boundless opportunities of the web hold little promise for homeless people. Poverty, mental illness and finding a bed that isn't infested with cockroaches are not issues that can be combatted with a keyboard.

Thousands of homeless Canadians don't have regular access to computers and many simply do not how to use the Internet For Canada's homeless, many of the benefits of our increasingly high-tech lifestyles are remote.

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Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges, a cluster of new technologies is tackling this digital divide and is trying to give us a more nuanced understanding about homelessness, and how to fight it.

For Janelle Kelly, who has worked with street youth for more than a decade, very little about the issue is straightforward. That is, except the fact that access to computers and the Internet is a right.

"It's one of those things in this day and age that you need in order to progress, to find housing, be able to manage finances, to do a resumé," she says. "If people on the street don't have access to technology then they're going to be left behind."

Ms. Kelly is the Vancouver co-ordinator for Homeless Nation, which brands itself as "a website by and for the homeless." On the non-profit networking site, founded in 2003 by Montreal documentary filmmaker Daniel Cross, homeless people can set up profiles, blog about their lives or about issues, upload video and audio and share advice, tips and news. Nearly 4,500 people have signed up. The site has won numerous awards and most recently beat out 20,000 other entries to win a 2009 World Summit Award for "e-inclusion and participation" from the United Nations.

Twice a week Ms. Kelly runs Homeless Nation workshops out of two social services centres, one of which is located in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. In the sessions, which start with a meal of pizza, fruit and pop, an average of 25 people crowd into a small computer room to learn how to access the Internet, search for housing and jobs and shoot and edit video with loaner camcorders. One of the project's goals is to help the homeless tell their own stories, says Ms. Kelly.

The site also has a section for missing persons, and recently started a Homeless News webcast, with zany sports, weather and entertainment segments alongside serious news pieces about shelter closures. Although most of the initial start-up funding came from the Canada Arts Council and the National Film Board, that initial cash has dried up, says Brett Gaylor, one of the site's co-founders. Without new sponsors or funding, the future of the site is in jeopardy.

"We're between the definitions of what a charity is," says Mr. Gaylor. "It's hard describing to a bureaucrat how we help the homeless. What we offer and what we're working toward can sometimes seem to be this intangible thing. Now, I've seen people's lives improve, but we're nothing like the Salvation Army, which is able to say they distributed 10,000 hot dogs and 5,000 cups of coffee. We're not that."

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We want to break down this stereotype of what homelessness is. It's not just laziness, or drugs, or mental addiction; it's a whole variety of factors that can lead to someone's being homeless. It's complicated. Brett Gaylor, co-founder

Another challenge facing the homeless is the stigma of having no phone number. Project CARE (Communications and Respect for Everybody) was started in April 2006 by a San Francisco-based communications company called GrandCentral, which has since been bought by Google. The program distributes dedicated local phone and voicemail numbers to homeless people on a card with the number and the person's name on it. Family members, friends, medical staff or potential employers can call the number and leave a message that is stored in the mailbox indefinitely.

So far, the initiative has distributed more than 10,000 numbers in the greater San Francisco area and handled nearly one million calls through their phone system.

"We found that just by giving people a phone number it will really, really improve their lives," says Craig Walker, product manager at Google's real-time communications department and the man who spearheaded the initial free phone number project. They're hoping to make it a national program by the first half of 2010.

These aren't the only new technology projects designed to fight homelessness in the works.

At Simon Fraser University, research associate Andrew Park has created a virtual environment of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside that will help researchers study how urban design affects human behaviour.

The York University-based Homeless Hub is a young web-based research library that hosts research, anecdotes and best-practice advice that is publicly available to academics, government and the general public. The first-person accounts on the site have titles such as: "My girlfriend introduced me to crack cocaine and that was the beginning of my downfall," and "I never wanted to be homeless; no one wants to be homeless."

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These technologies have the shared goal of alleviating poverty, increasing dialogue, and nurturing a more supportive and creative environment where society can find real solutions to this complex problem, says Mr. Gaylor.

"That's our dream. We want to break down this stereotype of what homelessness is. It's not just laziness, or drugs, or mental addiction; it's a whole variety of factors that can lead to someone's being homeless. It's complicated."

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