New York City, the biggest city with the highest homeless population in the U.S., spent an astronomical $3.5 billion on homeless shelters from 2014-2020. Yet, with all the financial investment, internet access in many shelters remains non-existent.
State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi has taken notice, and on Nov. 30 the progressive lawmaker held a press conference at Fordham Plaza, where she was joined by Shams DaBaron, aka Da Homeless Hero, community leaders and other elected officials to push for passage of her Wi-Fi in shelters bill. The bill, if passed, would provide internet access in all homeless shelters across New York State. Currently, only family shelters in NYC have Wi-Fi access.
According to a 2020 survey of New York City shelter residents by the New York City Bar Justice Center, only 6% of residents in homeless shelters were able to access the internet through their shelter. As a result of recent litigation by the Legal Aid Society and Coalition for the Homeless, New York City agreed to install wireless internet in more than 200 shelters that serve school-aged children.
“Really what we’re here to do today is call on Governor Hochul to prioritize this piece of legislation in this year’s state budget,” Biaggi said. “We want to make sure every single homeless shelter across the state has access to Wi-Fi. It is an essential part of life.”
DaBaron, who has experienced homelessness several times throughout his life, said the bill is critical and must get passed since too many people live in shelters, yet have no way of looking for work, housing or communicating with friends and family.
“Unfortunately, this was my reality and continues to be the reality for thousands of homeless New Yorkers,” he said. “I have lived in eight or nine single men’s shelters none of which had internet access.”
According to DaBaron, when he needed to look for housing, employment or access his case file he had to find a hotspot outside or at a local park. Making matters worse, his son could not do his schoolwork at the shelter, so they often frequented Starbucks and Barnes & Noble.
However, he said this isn’t just a homeless issue, but a racial one. Fifty-seven percent of the people in NYC shelters are Black and 32% are Latino.
“This takes a severe mental toll on homeless individuals and families as it has done to me,” he said. “Denying homeless New Yorkers access to Wi-Fi only perpetuates a digital divide that keeps low-income communities and communities of color unable to achieve economic and social mobility.”
Reach Jason Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.
— VOCAL-NY (@VOCALNewYork) November 30, 2021