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article imageBridging the Digital Divide

By Christl Dabu     Feb 2, 2003 in Technology
TORONTO (djc) - Although the United Nations' (UN) Human Development Index declared Canada as the best place to live out of 174 countries for six consecutive years, it now ranks third in the world. Among the stark factors to Canada's plummet in the ranking is the country's dire dilemma with homelessness which has culminated with the government's massive cuts on social programs, including housing, over the years, threatening to make Canada the only developed country in the world without a national affordable housing program. It is presently the only industrial country without a permanent National Housing Strategy.
Homelessness itself is being deemed a National Disaster by politicians, citizens and organizations across the country for good reason. Statistics provided by The Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC) show that the overall rental vacancy rate - the proportion of units vacant - for Canada plunged from 4.1 per cent in October 1997 to 3.4 per cent in October 1998, indicating that more people are being forced out onto the streets. And according to the Golden Report on Homelessness, between 1998 and 1999, the total number of people in Toronto's emergency shelter system increased 40 per cent, while the number of families in shelters increased 123 per cent.
Solutions from this sweeping crisis range from the TDRC's one per cent solution which proposes that all levels of government spend one per cent more of their existing total budgets on housing to a myriad of immediate emergency humanitarian relief efforts. But with the upsurge of the digital era, how do modern technologies fit into the solution?
Under the searing summer rays, a Queen Street West sign at the corner of Bathurst Street proclaims this colourful stretch of downtown Toronto as the city's Fashion District. It is animated by the mundane mid-afternoon urban life. A young couple with matching neon-fuchsia-dyed tresses and spunky street attire lock lips. A comely woman sporting dark shades, a sleeveless knit top, dark capri pants and a Guess shopping bag boards the streetcar with other commuters lugging shopping bags, as it chugs down the scalding pavement.
Amidst this bustling fashion mecca of shops and eateries lies an inviting little haven for those who are too poor to afford tempting trinkets, fashion "must-haves" and even a bite to eat. The refuge's regulars - weary and downtrodden from the stifling heat and frigid stares from passersby - enter an open wrought-iron fence with the welcoming words: "The Meeting Place", and a crowded mini courtyard where a couple of friends play cards. Once inside, they drop off any grimy attire in the laundry room, grab a revitalizing meal in the kitchen, and in a cozy alcove, they relax, contentedly surfing on the Web and engaging in idle chit chat and chess games while sipping coffee.
"I'm addicted.... Every day I work on the computer," says Freddy Garcia, who had lived in shelters for two years and currently lives with a friend. He still frequents the computer lab at St. Christopher House's The Meeting Place, a drop-in centre in downtown Toronto where the homeless, underhoused and low-income people utilize their nine computers each week, funded primarily by the Ministry of Health. He especially uses the computer for his volunteer duties as a writer for the drop-in's street magazine, "The Street Post", and for his fervent Internet and e-mail use.
A flight of stairs down, tucked placidly in a tiny room with six other Pentiums, is a fifty-something man - with a crisp, off-white dress shirt and a pen clipped onto his pocket - immersed in his own world. He is practicing his typing with a tutorial program, a daily ritual to which he devotes his afternoons after several hours in the morning working on a computer at another drop-in.
"They simply have good facilities here and I make use of them," says the man, who did not want his real name used, about The Meeting Place's computer lab.
For 25 years, *Jay had been a data processor creating accounting programs. But after losing his job, he has been forced to live in a local shelter for the past year.
Despite the popular notion that the realm of computers and the Internet is limited to the affluent, Jay and Freddy are among the surge of homeless people who are embracing the digital age - utilizing the free, public access computers and the Internet as an information and communications' medium in numerous drop-ins, shelters, public libraries and other facilities across Canada.
There is no main funding stream and adequate research on computer and Internet access specifically for the homeless. However, according to Statistics Canada's 2000 General Social Survey data, an estimated 13 million, or 53 per cent of Canadians over 15 years of age said they used the Internet at home, work or somewhere else that year. This is a dramatic increase since 1994. Most non-users said that cost and access are their greatest barriers to the Internet.
One way these obstacles are addressed is through the Community Access Program (CAP), a Government of Canada initiative administered by Industry Canada since 1994 to give Canadians affordable public access to the Internet and the support and training they need to use it effectively. From libraries to community groups, there are an estimated 700 urban and rural CAP sites operating across the country. However, future support for the program is under review, as it officially ended on March 31, 2001.
There are doubts about how these digital innovations fit into the immediate and long-term needs of the homeless, who must fend for their survival each day.
Homelessness today has been declared a National Disaster by the mayors of Canada's ten largest cities from Toronto to Vancouver, and more than 1,100 individuals and 400 organizations across the country. Statistics Canada reports that from 1991 to 1996, the number of Canadians who lacked adequate housing increased 21 per cent to 1.4 million.
Hence, the question arises as to whether access to this digital technology is superfluous or vital for the impoverished, whose fundamental needs include stable, affordable and adequate housing, income, and health and mental support services.
"It's not a privilege.... I think that free, universal access to computers should be a right for every citizen of the community," says Randall Terada, coordinator of Bang The Drum (, an Urban Community Internet Access Network sponsored by Industry Canada's CAP program since 1999, which offers free lessons on computer and Internet use for the public at St. Christopher House Literacy Centre and the Older Adult Centre in Toronto.
With the ubiquity of computers in everyday life, many say that computers and the Internet can be among the beneficial tools to help the homeless attain their basic needs.
"Advanced technology - in the biological, information and communications fields - had a tremendous potential to make a difference in the lives of poor people," says Eimi Watanabe, Director of the Bureau for Development Policy of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) at the Headquarters where a press conference was held this July to launch the 2001 Human Development Report. She says that in today's world, the latest technology has been extremely valuable in closing the gap on those basic needs, as long as they were prioritized, and the technology was channeled to meet the poor people's needs instead of commercial interests.
Kate Raworth, one of the chief co-authors of the annual development report entitled "Making Technologies Work for Human Development", says that technology has helped countries which have risen rapidly in the human poverty index since 1975, such as those in East Asia, by increasing incomes, health prospects and livelihood choices.
Human development itself is defined as "development that enlarges choices for people, particularly poor people" in all countries of the world, according to such indicators as income, education and life expectancy, Watanabe says.
According to the UN, enlarging people's choices is achieved by expanding human capabilities and functionings, where the three essential capabilities for human development are for people to lead long and healthy lives, to be knowledgeable and to have access to the resources needed for a decent standard of living. The essential choices highly valued by people also goes deeper, ranging from political, economic and social opportunities for being creative and productive to enjoying self-respect, empowerment and a sense of belonging to a community.
"It (computer access) does help in the larger purpose of creating a centre where the community can come and connect with other people, with services, and different kinds of communities in the city and larger society," says Pedro Cabezas, a program worker at The Meeting Place.
At The Meeting Place, the homeless can participate in introductory computer classes each week where they learn the basics from how to use the Internet to word processing programs. Those who are interested in furthering their computer studies can also be hooked up to a trade school or a formal computer training program, but there are usually high fees which they must pay for with social assistance. When the City of Toronto implemented the Homelessness Initiatives Fund last fall, ReBOOT Canada (, a not-for-profit, Toronto-based national organization, which has redistributed over 30,000 pieces of computer equipment donated by companies and individuals to charities and other non-profit organizations across the country since 1996, placed 80 individuals who were at risk of becoming homeless in an introductory hardware-training program. For the training program, participants who are referred from various agencies and organizations, learn how to disassemble and reassemble the computer's major components in one eight-hour class offered year-round on weekdays. They get to attend the class and keep the computer gratis, courtesy of the municipal grant. "It seemed like a perfect fit to try and get computers into the hands of people who are trying to improve their lives," says Devon MacDonald, Executive Director of ReBOOT Canada. "It really helps them have confidence in working with the computer.... Not only do they get exposed to the type of training and technology which they otherwise have no access to, they also have a tool they can use." ReBOOT Canada also provides free computer lab access for the public, and runs ReBOOT Retail in Toronto where they offer low-end computer equipment to the public. The most pricey item is a $140 Pentium 133, complete with Windows '95, a monitor and a keyboard.
Carolyn Crossley is preparing for the job hunt by using the computer lab - revamped with eight brand-new Pentiums and high-speed Internet - at Beat the Street, a learning centre for street-involved youth and adults in downtown Toronto. "It's a demand for the workplace," she says. "Everybody uses them, and they're very handy for everything."
"The computer is an essential means of our daily life," adds John Spencer, who is among the homeless who hang out at The Meeting Place. He is an aspiring graphic or abstractionist artist who uses computer graphic programs to create digital art. "It gives people an opportunity to plug into the mainstream flow of communications, which is very beneficial for the common personage. Plus, it provides people who normally don't have immediate access direct information, or pertinent information... through the Internet."
On the Internet, there is a wealth of resources from a Homeless Services Information System of hostel and shelter vacancies in Toronto ( run by the Street Helpline (a program of Community Information Toronto) to information on jobs, government services and programs. There is even a Web site called StreetRing, created by a homeless man in Tuczon, Arizona named Mike Davidson, which links a virtual encyclopedia of Web sites and resources for and by the homeless, including a Homeless Program Index, forums like the International Homeless Discussion List with 550 subscribers and newsgroups like alt.society.homeless.
The StreetRing was inspired by Richard Civille's paper, from the Center for Civic Networking, which was presented to a Harvard symposium on public access to the Internet in 1993 called "The Internet and the Poor". Civille believes that expanding one's network of acquaintances "broadens one's knowledge of the world, expands horizons of opportunities, and helps in career advancement." He says that the Internet, particularly e-mail, has been found to be a greatly efficient mode of establishing and maintaining this chain of acquaintances, or weak ties, which can transform into strong ties, or close friends. Thus, he says the poor will benefit most from this national information infrastructure, which includes the facilities, the people and the skills required to utilize it effectively, as it will help to lift them out of poverty.
In "Homeless People and the Internet" (, Davidson says that homeless people should care to use the Internet in order to achieve parity and inspire support to change the status quo "by giving one a voice and access to massive amounts of information", usually not requiring that users have opulence, or even a home address.
Daniel Dufresne of Toronto, a social activist who was once homeless in 1999, takes advantage of the Internet as a vital communication medium to gain contacts. He started his own federal and provincial petitions online ( to combat homelessness, which attracted the attention of Liberal and New Democratic Party Members of Provincial Parliament, who posted it at their constituency offices.
"I am actively fighting for our homeless in our country and find using the computer a very effective way to do this," he writes in his e-mail.
The anonymity of the Internet also enables wary users to access important information at their fingertips, instead of dealing with people and long waits. "They don't want to be stigmatized. They might feel nervous about (calling or visiting offices), but this way, they could privately do the research (and) they can be treated the same as everybody else," says Musonda Kidd from The Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, an advocacy group for the homeless.
"... I was down to my last few pennies with an unpaid phone bill, electric bill, and the next month's rent looming.... With no prospects for income in the next 24 hours... I left behind a computer, television, VCR, portable stereo, a few CDs, and a quantity of clothes which later I wish I had taken with me," writes *Eric of Tucson, Arizona in his personal online journal, chronicling his trials as a homeless person. "In actuality, my plan was to leave everything behind, walk as far as I could, and hope that I dropped dead on the journey. Homelessness was not on the agenda."
Eric says that the Internet helps to mitigate the isolation and stress of being homeless. It serves as "an outlet for my frustrations about my homelessness (and) also makes me feel as though I am more a part of the mainstream," he says.
However, many feel that more could be done to provide free, public computer and Internet access for the homeless.
"If all people had equal access to technology, there would be no digital divide. Unfortunately, that's not the case. So, it creates a two-tier system of technology - the people who have and the people who don't have," says MacDonald of ReBOOT Canada. "Without access to these type of resources, it gives them less of an opportunity to compete in a digital market place."
"The government is not doing its job in that area, but we can only do so much in terms of resources," says Kenefe Tefere, Computer Coordinator and Network Administrator for Beat the Street. Beat the Street was turned down for funding for the CAP program, and is primarily funded by Compugen Systems Ltd. and IBM.
Mike Crawford, who volunteers as a computer class instructor at The Meeting Place, says that although computer access for the homeless has improved from several years ago, there needs to be more computer lab support.
"You can sit there with the world's greatest computers, but if you don't have someone there to teach it... you're pretty much at a loss," Crawford says.
James Allen Scriver, who had lived on the streets of Vancouver and Toronto for more than 17 years, says that in some libraries and public facilities around Toronto, free, public computer and Internet use is restricted to as brief as half an hour and there are long line-ups. "Wherever I go, there's not enough computers there because you always have to wait," he says. "It's actually ridiculous."
At some other shelters, drop-ins and facilities for the homeless across Canada, computer and Internet access is non-existent, or the equipment is primitive.
"We're very aware that homeless need to, as we say in French 'se branche', or to hook up," says Louise Guay, Development Coordinator at Welcome Home Mission in Montreal, an emergency rescue mission with a 110-year history for people who are in need of shelter, food and clothing. The mission has never had computers available for its residents. "We see very much how developing computer skills will help them gain more autonomy (but) I don't know if we could find funds to do it."
Even with the computer and the Internet's laudable benefits, they have their limitations in solving the homelessness crisis.
"It's just one more tool that allows them to function and to get a normal life," says Janice Boyle, Director of Development and Communications at the Covenant House in Vancouver, which provides four privately-funded Pentiums with Internet access for street youth, "but it's not an end-all in itself."
With the barriers of mental and health problems for many of the homeless, Rui Pires, Harm Reduction Worker at St. Stephen's Community House Corner Drop-in in Toronto - which provides access to six computers for the 200 homeless and socially isolated people it welcomes daily - adds that computer skills don't necessarily translate into landing jobs easily.
"We have people with all those (computer) skills, but are still on the street. And it has a lot to do with social issues that they may have and their ability to interact with the rest of society which prevents them from getting a job, or integrating more into society," he says.
The Street Helpline's Hostel/Registry Web site also recommends that users call their hot line at 416-392-3777 for more up-to-date, comprehensive and definitive listings of shelter and housing vacancies. And although information on social assistance programs such as welfare and the Ontario Disability Support Program are available on the Net, many applications can't be submitted online; they must still be sent or dropped off at the appropriate office.
Spencer adds that there is an "information dualism" where many of the free, public computers he has access to are "too slow" and "too impersonal".
As a "chess champion" at The Meeting Place, he says that he favours face-to-face matches instead of the computer game, preferring to "see my opponent's expression as he wins or loses."
He says that it can also create a passive dependency on the machine instead of using one's intellectual faculties.
"It makes your mind redundant; a computer is smart because it has information, but the human becomes dumb," he explains. However, many agree that the computer and the Internet's benefits far outweigh its flaws and limitations.
The stereotypical images of the homeless - huddled on filthy street corners with near-empty cups, seemingly wasting away in futility - is being challenged by this emerging wave of homeless people who are discovering that access to computers and the Internet can be a significant gateway to their survival and escape plans.
There are even success stories. One of The Meeting Place's former drop-in regulars snagged a job with a dot-com company, and a few are currently hunting for jobs in the field.
Jay, who devoutly logs long hours in the computer lab at The Meeting Place and at another drop-in, also reveals that he has been working on a secret project for the past two years. "This is like working on my Ph.D.... It has special algorithms that nobody else knows about or has ever done," he says, smiling optimistically, about the computer accounting program he hopes to sell one day.
Garcia, who used to be an elementary school art teacher back in his homeland of El Salvador, says that he also has "an idea; maybe a dream", to take university publishing courses, become a publisher of his own books or magazine, get an apartment and one day even create his own art gallery with his family's support. "They (my family) don't want me to be in the streets anymore. They want me to succeed because I haven't succeeded the way I want to yet," he says.
But bridging the digital divide between the haves and have-nots is being threatened by a seemingly tepid government approach towards the plight of the homeless, such as the province of Ontario which has cut $300 million from its housing budget since 1995 and rejected recent proposals for new housing initiatives.
With improved access to digital technology, the pariah of society can be empowered with viable skills and knowledge, instead of being left in the cyberdust of a rapidly evolving technological world. They can even find a refuge - an escape from the desolation and destitution of the streets; a place they can finally call their "(virtual) home" where their obstacles don't include worrying about where they will find their next meal and shelter - just the irksome frustrations concerning computer crashes, virtual viruses and slow modems.
*Pseudonyms used.
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