Creating internet literacy programs for homeless people

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A couple of weeks ago, Open Access Connections held an event to address the broadband adoption needs of people who are homeless. I wasn’t able to attend but I hear it was well attended and well received. One of the cornerstones of the event was a report written by Rebecca Orrick on Envisioning an Internet Center for Homeless Individuals. The report really focuses on the needs of and solutions for the Twin Cities but much of the report can be just as useful for communities outside the Metro area.

The report itself is very interesting – but if you only had a couple of minutes and were thinking about this issue in your own community, I might cut straight to the Best Practices page, which I’ll abbreviate below:

  1. From the beginning, get the word out about the internet center, and spend a lot of time advertising.
  2. For funding purposes, many centers find that it is helpful (or required by funders!) to track the demographics of individuals who visit the center.
  3. It is important to decide conclusively whether or not the center will allow kids. If kids are allowed, they will have to be monitored more closely so that they do not damage the equipment.
  4. Many centers also find that it is helpful to post the rules of the center so that everyone who visits the center is clear on what is expected of them.
  5. If at all possible, the center should aim to have consistent hours.
  6. Do not underestimate the amount of planning it will take to start up a stand-alone computer center.
  7. Be leery of donated equipment- It is worth it to invest in new equipment if it means your internet center will offer individuals more reliable access, and be less prone to breaking down.
  8. Make sure to schedule regular maintenance, and have someone on staff who can inexpensively maintain and troubleshoot computer and printer problems.
  9. Develop a policy regarding whether or not people are allowed to save material on the computers.
  10. Also develop a policy on printing.

I’m going to add 11 – because while not mentioned above it’s such a good point from the report – get staffing from the community. In other words hiring homeless and low income individuals makes sense. It creates jobs but also staff close to the community will be able to relate to the community. They will also know how to provide outreach, which accroding to the report is a piece that is currently missing.

Rebecca surveyed the available reosurces and researched what was happening in other areas – but the heart of her material comes from interviews with homeless people about their needs and experiece with technology. I asked if there were any surpirses…

The biggest surprise I had during this research project was realizing how much information about existing internet centers is not widely known. Quite a few times, I’d be talking to homeless individuals at shelters or drop in centers, who didn’t even realize that within the building in which they stayed, there was a computer center that they could use. In addition, among the community in the Twin Cities advocating for digital literacy (individuals involved in the Technology Literacy Collaborative and others), many (myself included) were not aware that there were so many existing centers within transitional housing sites and shelters. I think the biggest thing that separates the vision that Open Access Connections has from most existing centers is the desire to have a place where people can learn to do whatever they want to do on the computers. At the presentation, we talked about how many of us learned how to use computers in informal ways, such as instant messaging or email writing, but in many computer centers, access is a lot more restricted to certain tasks, such as job searching. I believe that in order to become an empowered computer user, a person needs a lot of downtime becoming familiar with the computer and seeing it as a tool for fun and connection, not as a stressful thing that they need to learn last minute to accomplish an end goal, such as finding a job.