Sunday, February 18, 2001

Computers give homeless a sense of connection




By Karen Samples
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        One computer with Internet access is available to the homeless people who sell the Street Vibes newspaper in Cincinnati. The computer is constantly in use, which proves the need for more, says Susan Knight of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless.

        The coalition would like to open an expanded computer center for Street Vibes contributors and vendors, she says. Agencies nationwide are similarly inspired by the potential of linking the homeless with computers.

        “It's something that can bring in people who've been alienated otherwise,” Ms. Knight says. “It's something they can feel comfortable with — a non-judgmental computer.”

        Public libraries provide some access to computers, but they have their limitations, social workers say.

        “Someone living under a bridge isn't going to be welcome at public libraries every day for five hours a day. Somebody's going to draw the line,” says Staci Santa, associate director of the Northern Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.

        Her agency, based in Cleveland, plans to raise $200,000 for a computer center.

        Other projects, both regional and nationwide:

        • In Covington, a coalition of social service agencies is trying to open the Life Learning Center, which would provide not only computer access but also showers and lockers. The idea is to attract the homeless by offering basics, then engage them in discussions about housing, job training or medical treatment, the agencies say.

        So far, Covington city officials have blocked the project, saying the proposed site is better used as a parking lot for downtown businesses.

        • In Seattle and Chicago, homeless people producing and selling their own newspapers have gained wider access to computers. Both StreetWise in Chicago (www.streetwise.org/) and Real Change in Seattle (www.realchangenews.org/) have computer centers.

        • Homeless people are involved in several Internet discussion groups, including the International HOMELESS discussion list (csf.colorado.edu/homeless/index.html) and the Homeless People's Network (aspin.asu.edu/hpn/).

        Free e-mail is especially important, says Anne Cupper of the Recovery Network of Northern Kentucky. The Covington agency provides computer access to people recovering from mental illness or substance abuse.

        “One of the big things that we fight here is isolation,” Ms. Cupper says. “A lot of times the only place a homeless person can connect with another person is through an e-mail address.

        “That's their connection to society, right there.”

       



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