A Home Page Away From Home
A handful of cities around the country are connecting the homeless, disabled and indigent to the Internet. Phoenix isn't one of them.
By Liz Garone
Before Wes McBride found the Internet, he drifted--from homeless shelters to the streets, in and out of jobs on the fast-food circuit. But when he checked into Phoenix's Downtown Neighborhood Learning Center and took to the virtual byways of the Net, his life changed dramatically. The 26-year-old claims that having access to a computer has made all the difference in getting him off the streets, into an apartment and into a summer position teaching Internet skills to high-school kids. Now, he's using his computer skills as a clerk in the shipping department of a local manufacturing firm.
It may sound unlikely, but McBride's story isn't all that rare. A handful of cities around the country have been offering Internet access to citizens who couldn't otherwise afford it. Proponents of these privately and publicly-funded programs claim to have helped the homeless and unemployed connect with resources and learn new skills that have helped ease them off the streets.
Unfortunately, Phoenix isn't in a position to boast about bridging the gap between the technology haves and have-nots--at least not yet. Public access to the Web appears to be moving in slow motion here, compared with programs already implemented in other cities. In San Jose, California, for example, residents of Innvision, a homeless shelter, can roll right out of bed and check their e-mail or their voice-mail messages. (A number of Silicon Valley companies, including Intel and Seatech, donated the necessary technology to the shelter.) The cities of Santa Monica, Seattle, Salem, San Francisco, and Atlanta, all offer extensive computer access to their residents through public and private programs. In Austin, residents can go to any of 62 computers hooked up around town and get full Internet access through Austin Free-Net, a community, non-profit program that the city is partially sponsoring. New York City recently installed 130 computers with full Internet access to its library's science and technology branch.
The funding for most of these programs is supplied by a combination of government grants, private donations, and corporate sponsorships. In the case of Santa Monica's P.E.N. (Public Electronic Network), taxpayers foot the bill.
In Phoenix, public libraries offer the only option for getting online without a charge. But the city library system has only four terminals with full Internet access: two at the Central library (with one of them in the Children's Department), one at the Cholla branch, and the other at the Palo Verde branch. Waits of four hours aren't unusual, and library users are limited to 30-minute blocks of time.
"Thirty minutes is nothing," says Bisbee resident Allen Swarthout. "You're just getting wound up, and then it's gone."
The four terminals are part of a pilot program sponsored by the Phoenix Public Library to assess the community's Internet needs. Though the six-month program ends in January, the four computers currently online will stay in place, says Teresa Landers, the library's information services manager. The library plans to add more computers, provided funding can be found. "We're exploring all our options," says Landers.
For the past 15 months, the city of Phoenix has hosted an informational site on the World Wide Web, called Phoenix at Your Fingertips. Central Library visitors can access the site via two terminals. However, access is limited to government pages and those links that have been deemed "appropriate" by city staff. While the machines with full Internet connections are constantly in use, the two city-connected machines sit virtually untouched on two green pedestals. An occasional user wanders up to them--but usually leaves after realizing that the terminals don't actually offer Web access.
Greg Binder, project manager of Phoenix at Your Fingertips, defends the city's dedicated terminals, which have been installed at 27 public locations throughout the city as part of the U.S. Department of Commerce-funded project. "Our being on the Internet is not really the point," he says. "Our point is to provide electronic citizen services. It would not be in the city's interest to provide full Internet access."
He says he realizes that not everyone is going to be enthralled by his office's site. The terminals "are probably pretty boring to the people who are willing to wait for four hours, because basically it's the equivalent of coming down to City Hall," he says. "If you come to City Hall, you're not going to see movies or rock bands. You're going to see the business that the city performs for its citizens.... We're offering these services on behalf of the city citizen as opposed to the Internet citizen."
Joe Schmitz, who now lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, helped establish the original Santa Monica P.E.N. site back in the mid-1980s. The first city-based project of its kind, P.E.N. has become the model emulated by other cities. Schmitz sees it as "essential" that cities offer residents information on demand. "We know that access to information and opportunities are not at all equally distributed," he says. "For people to thrive economically, and beyond, they have to know more, they have to be able to learn more and to be able to find out more."
Dee Southard agrees. Southard, a University of Oregon sociologist who runs an electronic bulletin board and e-mail newsletter dedicated to the issues of homelessness, stresses the importance of public access to the Internet, e-mail, chat groups, and bulletin boards--not just city and government pages. Universal access is essential in leveling out the playing field--and not just for homeless people, but also for the disenfranchised in general, she says. "We are rapidly becoming a nation of bifurcation," says Southard. "Some people are techno-literate, and others are not. Just as basic literacy is important in our society, so is the 'new' techno-literacy."
Southard also believes that because of its "equalizing" nature, the Internet ought to be made accessible to citizens regardless of their status in society. "When we're communicating through the electronic systems without pictures, what race we are doesn't have to come up; what religion we are doesn't have to come up; if we're physically handicapped, it doesn't have to come up," she says.
The most active free-access provider in the Valley is AzTeC, a volunteer-run community service project based in Tempe. Supported by contributions from the Arizona Department of Library, Archives and Public Records; Arizona State University; AT&T; Motorola; Cisco Systems; Intel and Digital Equipment Corporation, AzTeC offers limited text-based Internet access and e-mail accounts to 20,000 subscribers in the Valley, Prescott and Flagstaff.
"We're aiming at the have-nots of the Phoenix community," says Joe Askins, a member of AzTeC's board of directors and director of data communications at ASU, home of the AzTeC hardware. "We're trying to bring them into the electronic age. Information is invaluable today. It's what our society runs on. To deny the homeless, the disabled, the young access to this information is not a good thing."
Barbara Grier is one of AzTeC's subscribers. She lives in a one-room trailer with her husband and three kids on the border of Mesa and Apache Junction, a good 30-minute drive (when there isn't any traffic) from downtown Phoenix. After Robert Grier lost his job last December, the Griers were evicted from their apartment and found themselves suddenly and unexpectedly homeless. They moved into the trailer just before Christmas 1995.
An antique (by computer standards) Macintosh II sits protected between two square tables in the front corner of Grier's trailer. ASU graduate student Sandy Andrews brought the computer over in January as part of her Homeless Arts Project, which offers loaner computers to low-income individuals and organizations. Grier, self-taught on the Mac, has sold computer-designed animal graphics through Andrews' Web site, dubbed "Floaters"--a place for homeless and formerly-homeless artists to showcase their art work to an international audience.
Apart from the admittedly small economic boost made possible by the computer, Grier says she gets a valuable psychological benefit from the machine. "Whatever sanity that I possess at this moment is due to this machine," says Grier, gently patting the decade-old Mac. "It has given me an outlet."
"I don't have any answers at all" to homelessness, offers Andrews, who developed the site after witnessing a homeless man trying to sell his art for 50 cents on the bus. "But what I've found [in the Internet] is something that doesn't ask if you have money, that doesn't require you to look a certain way or to talk a certain way."
Floaters' contributors trade in their old identity for that of artist, says Andrews.
For now, Floaters' artists and anyone else interested in the Web but without access at home or shelter, will have to sign up and get in line at the Central Library. "It's a safe bet," says Jen McKinlay, a library assistant, "that there would be anarchy if Web access here goes away."
Home again: Wes McBride says that Internet skills helped him get off the streets.
photo by Liz Garone