One night Darcel Jackson was lying in bed at a homeless shelter, wondering what local tech companies could do for the poor. How could they help people like him get jobs and find housing? Then it hit him -- an idea so simple and cheap you probably assumed someone had already done it years ago. Darcel thought tech companies could get Wi-Fi for people in homeless shelters.
Jackson was staying at Next Door, a shelter in the middle of San Francisco. Not only was there no Wi-Fi, there weren’t even computers. Like many homeless shelters in the state and country, it was a total Internet dead-zone.
It’s hard to do anything these days without the Internet, and it’s no different for the homeless. Imagine having to go all the way down to a city library and wait in line just to check your email. An Internet connection makes it easier to sign up for government services and support. Many job postings and housing opportunities are listed online.
But being connected means more than all that, says Wayne Samuelson, another resident of the shelter. Samuelson is a Marine veteran. He's been homeless on and off since the early '90s. Without the Internet, he says you are left behind. It’s like you live in another era.
“Everybody is wired up,” Samuelson says, “People are like, 'Are you connected?' I'm like, 'What do you mean? Am I a gangster?' Oh, Internet.”
Samuelson says many modern tech trends have passed him by. “About a month ago, I finally figured out what a selfie stick was," he says. "I saw these people walking around with these sticks. Are they backscratchers? What the heck are people doing with the sticks?”
Then he saw someone put a camera on the end of the stick and take a picture, a selfie.
The digital divide usually isn't comical. Samuelson became homeless after losing his job as a museum security guard, and he has been at the Next Door shelter for a few weeks. Since there’s no Internet, he can’t go on Craigslist to look for jobs. Instead, he's been going door to door and scouring help-wanted ads in newspapers.
“We're behind the times,” Samuelson says, “like primitive.”
There are 334 beds at Next Door. Shelter director Kathy Treggiari shows me the living quarters. They are bare bones. People are sleeping, reading, lying on the beds with their eyes open. One man has emptied out two plastic bags on a bunk. He’s reorganizing all his worldly possessions.
At night, the place is packed. Usually, every single bed is filled. “You don't get away here,” Treggiari whispers, “You're sleeping besides someone who can talk to themselves, smell. It’s scary. You know them, or you don't know them.”
Treggiari says the shelter lost tons of city funding after the 2008 financial crisis. She says she had to scrounge for bedding and cleaning supplies. Eventually, she was forced to closed the computer lab, and the Internet disappeared right here in the heart of San Francisco.
Treggiari says the shelter “is a world unto itself.”
Shelter resident Scott Nelson tells me how people crowded windows on one side of the room, hoping to pick up some shred of Wi-Fi signal from nearby businesses. “We were trying to use the Monarch Hotel across the street,” he says, “It was real sketchy.”
Scott Nelson has been at the shelter for almost 120 days. He says the Internet should be available for everyone. “It's a required thing,” Nelson says, “and cities should provide it as a vital utility, sort of like water.”
Even though the economy has improved since 2008, Internet is still scarce for the homeless. Some shelters in California have computers, but most don’t have Wi-Fi. Many have no Internet at all. That was the case at Next Door until just a few weeks ago. That was when Darcel Jackson found a way to actualize his idea to have tech companies help get Wi-Fi.
What got Jackson thinking about how tech companies could help the homeless was an article he’d read about Greg Gopman. The former tech CEO had written a screed against the poor and homeless on Facebook. He called them hyenas -- lower parts of society who should keep to themselves. Gopman wrote, “It's a burden having them so close to us.”
More than a year later, Gopman had decided to hold a town hall meeting on homelessness, looking for solutions, seeking redemption. Jackson decided to go.
The meeting wasn’t very accommodating for the poor, Jackson says. For one, you had to submit questions using a smartphone.
“It really wasn't geared for homeless people,” Jackson says. “It was for people to pat themselves on the back about what they'd already been doing.”
That didn’t stop Jackson.
After the meeting, Jackson approached Gopman and told him about his idea to put Wi-Fi in shelters. Gopman liked it, and together they contacted a local Internet provider, MonkeyBrains, which donated time and equipment. How much did it all cost? About $6,000.
So for six grand the whole shelter, 334 beds, was connected. People with their own smartphones, tablets or some other device could look for work, get services, talk to friends and family. Suddenly, Jackson could message his kids.
“I've got an 8-year-old son,” Jackson says. “Facebook is the way we communicate.”
Now Jackson has big plans. He's working with Gopman to create a nonprofit, Shelter Tech. He had some smartphones donated and is trying to get Wi-Fi in public housing projects and other shelters around the city.
So far, Internet has made a big difference at Next Door, says Wayne Samuelson. People are more connected, empowered, happier. According to MonkeyBrains, about 100 to 150 people are on the Internet at any given time.
Samuelson says, “I hear them talking. 'Do you have any movies on your phone? Well, show me because I want to watch some movies.' It brings joy into a very dull and mundane life.”
Samuelson now has something to be very happy about. Two days ago he finally got a job, a security guard position. He found it on Craigslist. Samuelson says his new employers are taking a chance on him. Without access to the Internet, they wouldn't even know he existed.