About Homeless, Internet, Cellphones, and What is a Necessity

When Igor told me about this event, I was surprised I didn’t know anything about this program, and if you think about it, it’s a great idea. And by “idea,” I do not mean the MediaLabs, I mean the discounted internet access. Igor’s article says:

The Internet Essentials program offers qualified customers to get 15 megabits per second of Internet use (an average Internet speed for most American households), for a little over $10 a month. The program also lets customers buy discounted desktop and laptops for around $150. Customers can also receive free classes on Internet literacy, basic skills, and useful tips for getting into college or applying for a GED.

Originally, Internet Essentials was only open to families of students who receive free or reduced lunches. It was subsequently expanded to families that either live in public housing developments or receive Section 8 Housing Choice vouchers, as well as college students eligible for Pell grants and low-income veterans.  

Now, Comcast opened eligibility to any resident who receive Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children; Medicaid; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; Low Income Home Energy Assistance; Supplemental Security Income; Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; and WIC. 

I think it’s important to acknowledge the fact that internet access is no longer a luxury, or entertainment, or something you can save on. The internet has become a vital necessity, comparable with food and housing. And it’s great that organizations are starting to recognize that fact.

I often hear comments about homeless people with cellphones. For some reason, when people spot a cellphone in the hands of a homeless person on the street, they immediately think that this person is not really poor, but just pretending. But it is very far from being true.

In fact, many organizations work on collecting used cellphones to donate them to disadvantaged people, including the homeless. Those people, even more than others, need to be informed. Where hey can get assistance. What’s the weather is going to be. I lost count how many times I was trying to explain to somebody how they can find a Night Ministry bus. The stops vary by day, and not everybody is familiar with all the city neighborhoods. 

We often take these things for granted and saying, “it’s easy to look up!” while it is not really that easy. At least not for everybody.

And while I am on the subject of homelessness, I also wanted to paste here an article, which appeared in Chicago Tribune about three weeks ago. I copied its text because the ability to access the Chicago Tribune content is limited, especially outside the US. And the reason I wanted to paste this text here is, that this is one of the subjects of which the general population is so often unaware. 

Same as those folks who commute to work by train every day do not know, that there is a Family Planning clinic just two blocks from the train station, and antis are going wild there. Same as many people do not understand why a student can’t buy a registration for a professional conference to be reimbursed later. Same way as twenty years ago, people would say they never met a homosexual person in their lives. 

The same way people often do not understand how close to them is the homelessness. Here comes the article. 

Inside his old running shoes, blood streaked Dontay Lockett’s toenails. His track coach at Chicago’s Lake View High School noticed when he took off the sneakers, which were several sizes too small. The high school junior had been wearing the same pair since seventh grade.

The coach who found him new shoes had also slowly gained his trust. When he finally told her he was living in a shelter, she had already figured it out.

Students in temporary living situations rarely self-identify, according to advocates. Lockett, now 22, said he didn’t like his classmates and teachers to know he was homeless. But his situation is hardly unique.

More than 16,450 Chicago Public Schools students didn’t have a permanent home during the 2018-19 school year, according to numbers released Thursday by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Most were in temporary living situations, meaning they stayed in shelters, motels, cars or, in about 90% of the cases, “doubled up” with others, according to the coalition. Doubling up doesn’t generally meet the federal government’s definition of homelessness, so people in those situations don’t qualify for federal programs for those without homes.

About half of the city’s homeless students were in 10 of the city’s 50 wards, according to the coalition’s data. At least 865 were believed to be living in Ald. Walter Burnett’s 27th Ward. Burnett spoke at a homeless coalition news conference Thursday at City Hall to plug a proposed increase to the real estate transfer tax on properties worth more than $1 million to address the situation.

“We need to put the people first,” Burnett said. “We need to help the needy and not the greedy.”

The advocates’ proposed 1.2 percentage point increase could generate about $150 million that could be used to reduce homelessness. The coalition said that’s 10 times as much funding as what’s already dedicated to the issue.

During her campaign, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she supported an additional tax on expensive property sales to direct more money to homelessness. But she has also said City Hall is on a different timeline than the homeless coalition. And she’s also suggested raising the transfer tax to help fill this year’s budget hole.

The coalition wants a referendum on the tax increase on the March ballot.

Coalition spokeswoman Julie Dworkin said it generates their count of homeless CPS students from school district figures, but said it’s always an undercount. At the beginning of each school year, when students and parents fill out emergency contact forms, there’s a box they can check if they’re in a temporary living situation. Not everyone who could check the box does, and sometimes other students are identified throughout the year or it comes up after parents seek help with transportation, school supplies or fee waivers.

The first time Lockett experienced homelessness, he was 11 or 12. His mother’s boyfriend kicked out her and her children. Though they quickly found a place to live nearby, he said, they couldn’t afford it for long. The next six years were a blur of relatives’ homes, friends’ couches and homeless shelters.

He went to four high schools in three different states, finally landing at Lake View after finding a shelter in the neighborhood where they could stay for a year. The family got a space with two beds, so he slept on the floor while his mom got one bed and his sister and her baby had the other.

“The thing about shelters is they give you a certain amount of time to be there,” Lockett said. “People think it’s like a place to stay forever.”

After their time was up, a family friend found them a house across town, near 52nd Street and Ashland Avenue. It had roaches and rats and the stove barely worked, and sometimes the heater didn’t work at all. But it was his home for the rest of high school. He and his sister woke around 5 a.m. to catch the Ashland bus, which could take an hour, or a little less if they got the express. His mom would care for the baby while his sister was in school.

When he transferred to Lake View to finish his sophomore year, Lockett was very private and didn’t talk to his peers much, he said. In the hallways, he kept his head down and let his dreadlocks fall in front of his face.

“I would go to school and back and that was it,” he said. “I felt very embarrassed to tell people that I was homeless. Everybody had fancy shoes. I’m not about all that, but I know people who are.”

Lockett joined the track team his junior year, and though he tried to keep his distance at first, by the end of his senior year, he had opened up to his teammates about having lived at the shelter and felt accepted. He was surprised that they were surprised to find out. What had been obvious to his coach had been undetectable to his classmates. He started tying his dreads back on top of his head. Teachers realized they could see his face. His coach noticed he’d started laughing with his teammates and making more jokes.

He also started to think more about his future. With the help of scholarships, including one from the homeless coalition, he was able to enroll at Columbia College Chicago.

“Co-captain and star of the track team, his coach commends Dontay for being the one to help the youngest, slowest boys on the team,” reads his biography on the coalition’s website. He said he has also been finding ways to help students experiencing homelessness like he did.

After Lockett finished high school, his coach and her husband offered him a room in their home, and he has been living with them since. He expects to graduate next year as an illustration major, and is thinking about then pursuing a teaching degree. He has taught art to first and second graders at a West Side school and could see himself doing that full time, or maybe illustrating children’s books.

“Just all over the place right now,” the 22-year-old said of his career goals. But having one place to call home has given him the freedom to pursue them.

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