For many people, the Internet offers ways to stay connected with friends, catch the latest news or play a game of Scrabble with someone half a world away — but many people who are homeless have a more limited view of the online world.
Advocates for the poor say that is because many free computer labs restrict Internet access to specific tasks, like filling out job applications or searching for affordable housing. Libraries often limit the amount of time each user can spend online, and most coffee shops have replaced computer stations with wireless Internet, accessible only through personal laptops or cell phones.
Social service providers worry that by linking Internet access to high-stress situations, homeless people are developing an increasingly negative view of the online world.
"People keep saying that they're being forced to interact with technology under duress," said Mike Menner, director of Alliance of the Streets, a Minneapolis-based group that provides assistance to low-income residents. "Those are moments when people don't tend to learn very well."
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In response, advocates and low-income residents plan to open a free computer lab with few restrictions. The group, Open Access Connections, envisions a space where users can explore the Internet by playing games, watching videos, and posting status updates on Facebook, or, as one organizer put it, "doing the same things everyone else on the Internet already does."
The St. Paul-based nonprofit organization plans to apply for grants for equipment and staff to monitor the lab and offer technical assistance. They hope to partner with a community group that already has available space.
The group also recently launched a free laptop computer rental program for low-income adults, using a $10,000 grant from the Digital Inclusion Fund to purchase nine computers. The rental program is geared toward older adults who are interested in working together to learn computer skills. The group plans to open it up to the broader homeless community over the next few months.
Organizer Ted Dennis first used the Internet when he was homeless five years ago. He said programs will also help homeless people feel less marginalized from society.
"You don't stay connected because you get on the Internet to fill out a job application," he said. "That doesn't help you feel more connected with the rest of the world."
EXPLORING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
A report released by Open Access Connections this month found that many homeless people are frustrated with the restrictions on Internet use at libraries, shelters, and social service agencies. Half of the 89 homeless adults surveyed for the report said they access the Internet at libraries. Those surveyed in Minneapolis reported mostly positive experiences with library computers, but respondents in St. Paul reported problems with long waits and limited time.
"Libraries have access if you have a card, but if you're not familiar with the Internet, you could spend a whole hour just trying to get on," one respondent said.
One in five people surveyed said they have no knowledge of computers. "The only computer I need is inside my ears," one person said. Another replied, "I got email and I don't even know how to use it."
Several people interviewed in the Open Access survey said they avoided using the Internet because they don't know how to read.
"I cannot spell, so what good is it?" one man said. "How am I going to say anything?"
BARRIERS TO INTERNET ACCESS
Some providers of services for the homeless offer a different view of the digital divide, arguing that providers are already overwhelmed with meeting people's basic needs.
Listening House, a drop-in center for the homeless in downtown St. Paul, provides free wireless Internet access, but users need to bring their own computers. The center's two public computers are not connected to the Internet.
"I can follow along with all of the philosophy behind Open Access and agree with them, except they're not running a program that's serving 200 people a day in a small space," said executive director Rosemary Reger-Rumsey. She thinks it might be better to focus on providing Internet access to people who have recently found housing. "Their mind is in a place where they can not only absorb the information, but retain the information better than the homeless existence, which is totally disorienting," she said.
Some shelters already provide Internet access. Harbor Light, a Minneapolis shelter that serves more than 400 people each night, has 25 computers. About 20 of the computers are available to all shelter guests. The others are limited to people in transitional housing and treatment programs.
The Open Access survey found that many Harbor Light guests did not know about the shelter's computer labs. Harbor Light operations director Dominick Bouza plans to install computer displays on each floor to post information about the labs and other resources.
"We've come further in the last two years than in the prior twenty in this building," Bouza said. "We're just at this point getting our feet wet and really working together and moving forward."
Despite those efforts, he said convincing people who are homeless to embrace the Internet isn't easy. "I don't think it's a priority," he said. "We're dealing with a less educated crowd. The reading skills are lower, so even to navigate through the Internet is going to be difficult."
Open Access Connections organizers acknowledge these challenges, but they argue that in the right setting, anyone can learn how to use the Internet. They point to the laptop rental program as an example.
Organizer Ed Petsche said volunteers have provided some assistance, but participants are also teaching each other. Some people might know how to search for information on Google, he said, while others know how to minimize a window on the screen.
"There's this exchange of knowledge that's really great to see," he said. "That's really what this is all about, building connections with each other and the world."