Closing the Connectivity Gap for SF's Homeless Youth

Moving into a shelter is often the first step in getting off the streets permanently, and access to Wi-Fi can be the lure that attracts homeless teens.

(TNS) — For people of means, a smartphone is a handy essential. For those without a home, it’s a lifeline.

Data plans are the real luxury. Many homeless people go seeking Internet access at public libraries and fast-food chains. Little more than half of adult shelters in San Francisco have wireless Internet.

That’s starting to change, because San Francisco city officials and community leaders have seen how phones help the neediest people stay safer on the streets and reconnect with society. They’re promoting wireless links to help in the fight against homelessness.

“Phones are a necessary part of survival for any of us,” said Sherilyn Adams, executive director of Larkin Street Youth Services, the city’s largest nonprofit working to end youth homelessness. But “young people experiencing homelessness need that lifeline, probably more than I do, when I have a regular place to lay my head.”

Not a single shelter or resource center affiliated with Larkin Street had Wi-Fi until a few months ago. ShelterTech, a San Francisco nonprofit, is using city funds to wire shelters and single-room occupancy hotels with Wi-Fi. The all-volunteer group has paid to install and carry Internet at 10 sites since its founding in 2016 and has selected its next eight recipients, all of them affiliated with Larkin Street.

Though exact figures aren’t available, substantial numbers of people sleeping on city streets have smartphones. Lifeline, a program funded through the Federal Communications Commission, gives smartphones to many homeless people and subsidizes the monthly cost. Others pay for phones with paychecks or savings, while some share a phone and its costs with friends.

In 2017, the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development awarded ShelterTech an annual grant of $95,454 for three years. That money supports projects like AskDarcel, a website that helps case managers and their homeless clients find services and learn how to access them. ShelterTech volunteers are building a chatbot to give people recommendations from AskDarcel’s database.

Chatbots and Wi-Fi alone won’t solve homelessness. But for young people like Daaimah Tibrey, 25, who spent six months without a home last year, smartphones and the Internet access they provide are crucial tools. Without the phone, she said, the crisis would have lasted longer.

Tibrey left Fresno for San Francisco in 2017 to take a promotion with her employer, a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities find work. Her family — Tibrey, her husband, a 4-year-old daughter and an infant son — checked into a hotel near the Moscone Center until she could find an apartment.

The promotion came with a small raise, but it wasn’t enough to cover their expenses while her husband, from the Dominican Republic, took English classes and looked for jobs working on heating and cooling systems. They ran out of money in just two weeks.

Suddenly homeless, Tibrey and her family slept in their cramped 1991 Mitsubishi Diamante. She turned to her Samsung Galaxy Note 3.

Tibrey planned her day in 15-minute increments on Google’s calendar app. She used it the same way people of means do, for scheduling drop-offs at day care centers around her commute, and keeping track of appointments. But it also held the details they needed to survive. Every free meal the family received from a church or food pantry appeared as a color-coded calendar event.

Tibrey connected with social services that clothed her children, provided child care and gave her financial advising. Compass Family Services moved the Tibreys into a private room with bunk beds at a shelter in Civic Center.

“Every five minutes I spent on my phone would be the difference between my kids having a backpack, shoes or a place to live,” Tibrey said.

The family went from living in their car to a rental in Hayward in less than a year. In January, Tibrey entered a six-month coding boot camp that has a mission to place low-income women and minorities in tech jobs. She credits her success, in part, to her Samsung phone.

“It helped me to accelerate us out of homelessness,” Tibrey said.

People without homes rely on their smartphones to navigate the web of bureaucracy that surrounds the city’s homelessness services.

“If you just Google, ‘I’m homeless in San Francisco, what do I do?’ — there’s not necessarily something that pops up,” said Molly Cohen, a senior policy analyst at the city treasurer’s office and executive director of ShelterTech.

Organizations that provide food and shelter have different hours and eligibility requirements. A Hunters Point church opens its food pantry to any resident with a photo ID, while St. Anthony’s invites seniors and families with children to eat lunch earlier than the general public. Securing a bed at one of Larkin Street’s shelters, which serve adults ages 25 and under, means calling every day to hold a spot on the waiting list.

“It takes so much mental energy to be homeless,” Cohen said. “Then, on top of that, people have to manage complicated bureaucratic processes at multiple organizations.”

Having a smartphone eases life for the homeless, but those benefits skew to young people. A UCSF study published in December found that the vast majority of older homeless adults had access to cell phones, but they were usually low-tech phones that could not access the Internet. Researchers don’t know how many younger homeless adults own smartphones, though advocates say the devices are nearly ubiquitous.

At the Haight Street Referral Center, a homeless youth drop-in site affiliated with Larkin Street, program manager Camilla Bolland said she sees clients share phones and chargers.

“Sharing is more adaptive than coveting,” Bolland said. “If there’s one piece of pizza left, rather than it leading to a fist fight, the kids will split it in half and share. Because that’s how you survive.”

For some, a phone provides a way to locate services in a city that has a reputation for being friendly to the homeless but is still a place where people struggle to get certain benefits.

At 21, Shakari Sanchez was homeless in San Francisco after leaving foster care. She heard horror stories about living on the streets of the Tenderloin and the Mid-Market neighborhood, where nearly half of the city’s homeless denizens reside. As a newly homeless person there, she said, “I felt like a little kid trying to maneuver and get to know places.”

But Sanchez, now 24, has had a smartphone since she was 11. Relying on the NextBus app to learn public transit routes and timing, Sanchez was able to sleep on buses instead of sidewalks. She called her biological brother or cousins to let them know if her phone had a low battery so they wouldn’t worry if they couldn’t reach her. Having a phone helped her feel safe, she said, because “I could always call somebody.”

A smartphone also helps homeless people find jobs — no different from their housed peers using Craigslist and

Isabella Black left Bakersfield for San Francisco in 2014 after she came out as transgender and became homeless. She slept two weeks with her back pressed against the rocks at Lands End, and three weeks at a youth shelter, before moving into transitional housing.

Most days she woke up, lifted the iPhone from her bedside and checked her in-box for emails from recruiters. “I’m the fastest email replier on this side of the Mississippi,” Black said.

Black, now 26, used her phone to apply for a job in security at Target and find affordable housing near Civic Center. She also plays “Pokémon Go,” a pleasant distraction that turned the streets she roamed into virtual arcades.

Advocates are starting to appreciate the importance of smartphones, and the Internet access they provide.

In interviews with case managers, Cohen learned that many of their clients choose a shelter based on its amenities, of which Wi-Fi is the most critical.

“The vast majority of people who are homeless have access to smartphones but don’t have much data,” Cohen said. “Imagine they have this computer in their hands but don’t have access to all the information out there.”

On an afternoon in November, case manager Pamela Brown stood in the doorway of her office as workers tinkered in a wiring closet at the Larkin Street housing facility. Residents had been begging staff to provide Wi-Fi, which gave them access to the Internet on their phones without a costly data plan. At last, ShelterTech came through.

Brown said she would be happy if her clients stayed in to binge-watch television on their phones all day. She pointed to boredom as a reason many hang out on the streets and take drugs. The Internet “provides an outlet,” she said, that “keeps them safe and gets their needs met here.”

Moving into a shelter is often the first step in getting off the streets permanently, Adams said. Under her leadership, the Larkin Street organization has doubled the number of beds in its shelters and transitional housing since 2005.

The goal, however, is getting young adults out of Larkin Street’s care completely, she said. That’s true of most homeless youth centers. They want to surround people with the support they need so they can go on to be independent.

Adams described the Internet as an “important carrot” to bring young adults inside the centers.

Come for the Wi-Fi — stay for the help.

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