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Vagrant Gaze: A Voice for the Homeless

Michael Rennick, a doctoral student in the Philosophy and Education program who specializes in Cultural Studies, is intensely interested in computer-mediated communications. But that isn't the reason why he constructed his web site,Vagrant Gaze. Rennick says that his web site is supplying a voice "for those of New York City who typically go unheard"--the homeless. "It's not like doing research. This project has drawn me into it rather than me choosing it. It is compelling."

Vagrant Gaze is also compelling to many people in cyberspace. It is attracting the attention of thousands of visitors per day and was chosen as one of ten "Internet Sites of the Week by Yahoo" for the first week of December 1997. More than ten thousand people have visited the site and 60 people have communicated with Rennick about how the site has profoundly impacted their lives. Rennick believes his site has become popular because of its point of view and content, rather than just its technology.

"The Internet is dominated by technological innovations--like the movie Jurassic Park--all show and no content. People really want interesting content, not just bells and whistles."

The concept is simple: Rennick gives homeless persons disposable cameras for a day and allows them to shoot whatever photographs "they deem to be important and worthy." Then, he posts these photographs onto the web site along with an interview with each homeless photographer. Rennick says that the homeless see their condition differently than others do and so they come back with photos that have special meaning to them. The camera, he feels, gives the homeless "the power to penetrate the world rather than be its object, to be part of the dialogue on homelessness rather than being left out."

"It is hoped that although these artistic expressions are fleeting in nature, they will supply each person with a sense of self-worth and value . . . " Rennick says in "What's this site all about?"

"Upon obtaining their agreement, we arrange to meet the following day at a designated time. Each participant is given $20 for their efforts. I would like to give more but cannot afford to do so without some outside funding," Rennick writes.

Rennick has become attached to some of the homeless he has interviewed. For example, there is Kevin King, whose child, Anne, died in a fire. King became a drug addict and wound up HIV positive. But he says that "I'm not goin' to give up man, no matter what man, you know. I'm going to get off these streets man, and I'm goin' to get a job . . ."

One of Rennick's reservations about the site is that it "sanitizes and cleans up homelessness" because the technology gets in the way of really understanding the condition. "But at least it allows the homeless to have a voice and an opportunity to connect and communicate with others."

John Broughton, Associate Professor of Psychology and Education, is Rennick's academic advisor. He sees his doctoral student's work as the source of a dissertation. Broughton feels that what Rennick is doing is something special--integrating technology, education, and philosophy.

Broughton believes that Rennick is asking important questions and using his web site in a philosophical discussion on homelessness. Homeless people, says Broughton, are in a unique position in America. "Are they part of our democratic system or beyond it? Are they members of our community?"

To see the Vagrant Gaze web site, go to http://www.perfekt.net/~vagrant/homeless.htm.

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