Client Stories

#WiFi4Homeless: Online School, Off-Line in Shelter

Thank you to City Bar Justice Center summer intern Arielle Rosker for her investigation and for reporting on this story.

*Disclaimer: Please note pseudonyms are used to protect the identity of recipients of CBJC program services and to preserve client confidentiality.

In the typical New York City shelter, internet access is one of many necessities that is not provided. Rose* lives in such a shelter.

Access HRA is the mobile app that allows indigent NYC residents to manage their public benefits, specifically Cash Assistance (welfare) and SNAP (food stamps). In light of the recent pandemic, this app has become the only way for individuals to check in with the City welfare agency about the status of these public benefits. Visiting one of the few open HRA welfare centers to address issues is risky during the pandemic, and reaching an HRA employee via phone is, at times, virtually impossible. Rose was forced to buy her own wireless data plan to download the HRA app and access services that were essential to her family’s survival.

After spending a significant portion of her limited savings to pay for a wireless data plan, Rose realized HRA did not allow individuals to apply for Cash assistance or SNAP benefits through its mobile app – applications could only be submitted through their website which would require her to have access to a working computer and Internet.

Rose has two sons in the second grade. During the COVID-19 outbreak, the Department of Education (DOE) planned to distribute internet enabled loaner tablets to NYC homeless shelter residents so that students could complete the school year remotely. The DOE promised that the tablets would be promptly distributed. In Rose’s case, the devices arrived two weeks after the promised date.

While initially grateful for the tablets, Rose soon realized the devices were not equipped for her family’s needs such as for checking her public benefit case or to search for housing, in fact, they were not even suitable for her children’s school assignments. Rose’s children attend a charter school where teachers require students to appear on an online learning app at least twice a week to meet their class attendance obligations. Unfortunately, the tablets had many restrictions, limiting access to only a few preloaded applications, which did not include this app. As a result, Rose was forced to use the shelter’s computers which only allowed users to be on for twenty minutes at a time. Twenty-minute computer access did not provide Rose’s children with enough time to complete their homework. Rose took matters into her own hands and began teaching her sons using informational packets the shelter printed out for her. Her boys completed their work on a shared twin bed in their one room unit. Still, because of their lack of sufficient internet access, one of Rose’s sons received a low grade for the year. Rose, like any concerned mother, made multiple attempts to contact the school to explain the challenges that led to her son’s poor participation. Unfortunately, she has not been able to reach his teachers.

Providing Wi-Fi access would “greatly help single moms with kids”, she said. She believes nothing justifies the DOE’s failure to prepare a backup school plan to ensure remote learning was accessible to all children. Rose hopes mainstream society will recognize that depriving disadvantaged communities of access to the internet simply “makes no sense” – it has become a service as basic as heat, clean water, and food. It is essential.

Support the City Bar Justice Center’s and the New York City Bar Association’s #WiFi4Homeless advocacy campaign urging the City to include and prioritize homeless shelters in their plan to expand broadband internet access to low-income New Yorkers who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic: