Trying to Connect

Juanita Baez delights in showing pictures of her family on her new phone.

Juanita Baez delights in showing pictures of her family on her new phone.

Juanita Baez typed with her two index fingers. As her long fingernails tapped on each deliberately chosen key, a digital clock in the bottom corner of her screen counted down the precious minutes that she had left to use the internet that day.

Baez has been using the computers at the Hunts Point Public Library to look for work since she was laid off from her job at a local healthcare agency two months ago because of health problems, she said. In the meantime, she’s had to reapply for food stamps, Medicaid, and unemployment benefits. The government offices were busy. She was told to try online.

The 62-year-old grandmother had borrowed a laptop from the library at 5:10 p.m. It was due back at 6 p.m., and the library only allows one session per day. Baez had trouble signing in. Peering through narrow black spectacles, she tried to enter her Yahoo email address on the Gmail login page. By the time she accessed her email, she had 29 minutes left online.

“It’s frustrating,” she said, recalling the three days it took her to apply for unemployment benefits in one-hour installments at the library. Delays like this matter to Baez. Once she has her benefits, she thinks she’ll have enough money to rent a room. For now, she is homeless.

Federal regulators treat high-speed internet access as a public utility, like electricity or telephone service. But for Baez and many others, the commonplace task of accessing information on the internet presents a daily challenge. A third of American households do not have an internet connection, according to the most recent study by the Pew Research Center. People with annual household incomes under $20,000 are almost as likely to lack a home internet connection as people over 65. Latinos, African Americans, less educated people, and the unemployed are all less likely to have access. About one in 10 Americans don’t go online at all.

Baez’s neighborhood has among the lowest rates of internet access in New York City, according to census data from 2013. Hunts Point in the South Bronx is one of six in the city that is currently building a community Wi-Fi network, which is designed to help people who do not have connections at home. The two-year project, called Resilient Networks, relies on $4.1 million in federal funding earmarked for Hurricane Sandy relief.

The New America Foundation will divide the funding among six neighborhood networks— from Staten Island to Far Rockaway . A local organization will lead the development each of the community networks. The foundation’s approach is to train local residents to build and maintain the network, rather than bringing in technical experts from outside the community. This strategy is intended to make the networks sustainable over time, and to ensure that they reach the people who will most benefit from them.

“You can’t just go with build it and they will come,” said Angela Siefer, director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

Siefer’s nonprofit has worked with hundreds of grassroots programs across the country that aim to provide equal opportunity to access and use the internet. She said that internet access will only change people’s lives if it comes with education and outreach.

The city’s LinkNYC Wi-Fi kiosks and federal programs that require cable companies to give low cost subscriptions to eligible households can help in cases where cost is the only barrier to access, said Siefer, but cost is often only one of many obstacles. Hunts Point has also yet to see any LinkNYC towers.  The program has taken criticism for being too slow to establish locations outside Manhattan.

Despite efforts to provide affordable access, the number of households nationwide with internet connections has plateaued at around 70 percent since 2013, according to Pew’s annual studies. Another 13 percent rely on a smartphone, but Pew’s research suggests that phones are more of a stop gap than a substitute. The cost of phones or computers is a barrier in only ten percent of cases, Pew found. Siefer explained that people may save up to buy a device or get one for free, but that monthly plans are harder sustain on an unstable income. Even when the cost barrier is lifted, said Siefer, people need to have the skills to use the internet, and trust the providers.

The strategy being tried in Hunts Point aims to meet these needs by having the same team of locals who build the network also help their neighbors to get online through outreach and education. The project needs support from various elements in the community. Organizers have to recruit their team, called digital stewards, to do installation and outreach. They also need local businesses to agree to host the Wi-Fi routers on their buildings. In Hunts Point, organizers have been racing to get 15 businesses signed up before a December 16 deadline, a process that has been harder than anyone anticipated.

The impetus to make small businesses a key part of the Wi-Fi project came, along with its funding, from what happened in one Brooklyn neighborhood during Hurricane Sandy. When the hurricane struck New York City in October 2012, Red Hook was flooded. Much of the neighborhood lost power. The Verizon and Time Warner networks went down.

Although his own home was under 5 feet of water, Tony Schloss remembers the aftermath with a degree of pride. When the major networks went down, Red Hook Wi-FI, the community Wi-Fi network he had helped to build, stayed up. Two of its routers were on buildings that still had power. Schloss and his team extended the coverage to a nearby Coffey Park where the Red Cross had set up. Neighbors could come to these locations, get online, and communicate.

The New America Foundation, a national nonprofit which is helping coordinate Resilient Networks, had helped to set-up Red Hook Wifi, and that network’s resilience during Hurricane Sandy spurred the foundation’s new Wi-Fi project, which will bring a similar network to Hunts Point. After Sandy, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development gave $30 million in disaster relief funding to New York City’s Economic Development Corporation. New American won $4.1 million of that money.

Plan for the new networks incorporate lessons learned in Red Hook. Each router is set to have two days of battery power, and the networks should have at least two internet connections. If both links are cut, the networks should still allow the communities to communicate amongst themselves. As in Red Hook, there will also be a team on the ground already to do repairs before other help can reach the area.

In Red Hook, however, Schloss’s team could place their routers on the roofs of community institutions, like the local church. For the new project, the federal funds come with a mandate that the routers go to small businesses that suffered damage from Sandy. In Hunts Point, organizers have to carry out this mandate by convincing businesses to enroll.

A mural on the wall of The Point Community Center.

A mural on the wall of The Point Community Center.

One Thursday morning in November, Yamil Lora, the community coordinator for Hunts Point Wi-Fi, set out for another day of neighborhood outreach. He passed through the sun-bathed atrium of The Point community center in Hunts Point, which is hosting the Wi-Fi project. Once a warehouse and later abandoned, the building has been home to The Point for 22 years. Lora exchanged jokes with some older neighbors who were enjoying a meal from the center’s kitchen. Wherever he goes in Hunts Point, he greets people with a long handshake or a one-armed hug.

The neighborhood that The Point serves is one of the poorest in the city. The average income in Hunts Point is less than half that in the city overall. Nearly a quarter of its households live on less than $10,000 a year. Roughly 27,000 residents live in a small pocket of the Hunts Point peninsula, surrounded by a swath of industrial businesses and cut off from the rest of the Bronx by a rail corridor and 10 lanes of traffic on the Bruckner Expressway. The community is three quarters Hispanic, 22 percent Black, and just one percent white.

Many of the storefronts near the highway were still shuttered when Lora walked past them at 11 a.m. en route to his first stop of the day. The glossy windows of a payday loan shop stood out from the faded paint on roll-down metal shutters. Some men were selling fruit from boxes on the sidewalk.

As he walked, Lora talked about his goals for the new Wi-Fi network. Internet access is not just about letting people send emails or go on Facebook, he said. It can provide a route to education, technical training, and jobs, especially for local youth. But most importantly Lora wants the network to tie the community together. He wants people to take pride in using something that their community has built.

After a few minute’s walk, Lora arrived at Project Hope, a workforce development agency on Hunts Point Avenue. Its storefront office was crowded with people, sitting in no obvious order on folding chairs. A grey-haired man was lecturing in a strident monotone about workplace safety.

Lora wants one of the Project Hope staff, Cielo Jaramillo, to apply to be a digital steward with the Wi-Fi project. Jaramillo greeted Lora with a smile. She’s about half his height, and wore a neat black suit.

Lora plans to recruit eight stewards before the end of the year. In January, they are expected to begin training on how to install and maintain the network’s hardware and software. It didn’t take much convincing. Jaramillo agreed to apply.

Outside, Lora said Jaramillo will provide a strong link to the unemployed residents who she already works with every day. Effective community outreach requires connecting to people who can connect you to other people. It’s about building a network. But he admits that finding stewards is the easy part. Recruiting businesses has been the real challenge.

An auto-wrecking business in Hunts Point.

An auto-wrecking business in Hunts Point.

Standing on Spofford Avenue in Hunts Point, at the edge of the residential district, a slight fall in the ground offered Lora a view over the flat grey rooftops of countless industrial businesses. The air was noticeably sharp with the exhaust from countless trucks that roll past every day heading for the massive Hunts Point Food Terminal.

A few blocks further down, Lora turned into an auto-repair shop. The shop floor was spotlessly clean. A group of middle-aged men in blue overalls were standing by a hoist. Lora greeted them in Spanish. He shook hands with Kevin Nuñez, the son of the owner.

Thin and intense, Nuñez wore immaculate black jeans, hoodie, and baseball cap. Nuñez’s business was the first in Hunts Point to sign up to host a Wi-Fi router. He said came on board because he cares about the community, and because he knows the executive director of The Point. Now he’s trying to help Lora get others onboard.

Over lunch, Lora and Nuñez strategized over how to get more businesses involved. Many are leery of handing over tax information, even though the information is only used to verify their small business status as part of their enrollment. Nuñez said that the paperwork is tedious. Some businesses are also distrustful. They don’t seem to understand what the project is about. Nuñez wondered if they think the Wi-Fi will spy on them somehow. In any case, the businesses are not the ones who will benefit from the Wi-Fi. They can afford internet for themselves. There’s not much incentive for them to go through the hassle of signing up.

“Most of the businesses around here are owned by older gentleman. They don’t give a fuck about Wi-Fi,” said Nuñez.

In the following weeks, Lora would change his tactics. “Businesses speak profit,” he said. Their owners didn’t see a profit incentive, and were often unmoved by the needs of the community. So the strategy for Hunts Point became to make helping the community a personal favor. Leveraging 20 years of connections in the neighborhood, The Point’s staff worked through their personal relationships.

By December 16, Lora said he had eight businesses onboard, six short of their goal. Still organizer in Hunts Point and at the New America are confident that the network will be completed on schedule by April 2018.

Meanwhile, Juanita Baez was excited to hear about the prospect of public Wi-Fi in Hunts Point. She was recently given a free smartphone by the federal government’s Lifeline program, and has experimented with using the Wi-Fi around Lincoln Hospital. Having the same service in her neighborhood, she said, would make it easier for her to get the information she needs.

Until then, she will have to depend on one-hour sessions on the library’s computers. At 5:55, five minutes early, she closed the laptop and carried it back to the circulation desk. Baez wishes the library could give her more time, but said she understands that other people need the computers too.

As she sat down again, she rubbed her left wrist. Baez said she broke it in a fall two years ago. Lately, it has been hurting again. She’d like to have her wrist checked at a hospital, but she won’t go until her Medicaid coverage is approved. But that process, like many other tasks in Baez’ life, will be that much harder for her because she does not have the easy access to information that so many other Americans can afford to take for granted.