In November 2020, after months of pandemic-induced school closures and remote learning, Legal Aid and law firm Milbank filed a lawsuit on behalf of three families with children in a shelter who accused the city of violating their constitutional right to a “good basic state”. education.”
More than 240 family homeless shelters are now equipped with Wi-Fi after New York City officials meet the terms of a settlement in a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of thousands of residents. school age children.
Already essential for job applications, apartment searches and homework assignments, internet connectivity at homeless shelters became an acute emergency when New York City closed schools in mid-March 2020 and implemented fully distance learning. The Department of Education distributed thousands of web tablets to students in need, but data plans, first from T-Mobile and then Verizon, provided uneven coverage in many shelters and hinders the education of students.
In November 2020, Legal Aid and law firm Milbank filed a court case on behalf of three families with children who accused the city of violating their constitutional right to a “good basic education.” City attorneys countered in court papers that the lawsuit, which called for full connectivity by Jan. 4, 2021, would have forced the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) “to accomplish the impossible” in too short a time.
Some shelter providers seemed undermine this argument opting to equip their facilities with access points in the hallways, although other nonprofits have said that in the absence of large-scale municipal investment, the wiring was too expensive and strain their service or capital budgets.
READ MORE IN THIS SERIES: A Family Affair – Parents, Children and the Homelessness Crisis in New York
In April 2021, the two parties reached a settlementthe city accepting to equip each establishment with a Wi-Fi network provided by Altice or Charter and to ensure that the rooms have sufficient Internet access before placing a family with a student.
Susan Horwitz, lead attorney for Legal Aid’s Education Law Project, said the lawsuit compels the city to create a “workable plan” to close the digital divide in family shelters.
“Now that the work is substantially complete, lack of internet access will no longer exacerbate the severe educational inequities that have historically plagued so many of our clients living in shelters,” Horwitz said.
Horwitz said Legal Aid will focus on broadband access for all New Yorkers, including approximately 100,000 students who experience homelessness and housing instability but who do not necessarily enter the shelter system.
City officials on Tuesday welcomed the completion of WiFi installation throughout the family shelter system. Internet service costs about $216,000 per month in addition to $6 million for assessment, installation and other services, according to city data.
“Dedicated staff from three agencies worked under difficult circumstances to ensure students residing in shelters had the tools they needed for remote learning and didn’t get left behind during the pandemic,” said Legal Department spokesman Nicholas Paolucci. “The settlement formalized the city’s aggressive schedule and commitment to get the job done, and we did it.”
The number of families staying in shelters has remained relatively constant in recent months after declining significantly over the past three years, according to daily data tracked by City Limits. There were just under 8,750 families with about 15,000 children at a DHS facility on May 23.
Installing reliable internet access in family shelters marks a victory for New Yorkers who are often cut off from online activities.
The completion of the project also marks a major change from just two years ago. In March 2020, shelter parents and guardians told City Limits they feared their children would fall further behind in school after housing instability and other trauma had already hampered their education. . “I’m completely freaking out,” a mother of two said at the time. “They use my smartphone but my phone is very slow.”
These connectivity issues continues for students in all five boroughs, the city is slow to resolve the issues, according to court documents.
Families with young children have also benefited from the connectivity. When the city shut down in March 2020, Starkeysha Love said she and her 2-year-old daughter found themselves shut out of most activities. Her weak cellphone signal and limited data plan prevented her from opening apps and enrichment programs for her toddler on her tablet.
In July 2021, more than a year into the pandemic, the couple moved into a shelter in Jamaica, Queens equipped with WiFi, enabling them to unlock opportunities for their daughter’s development. The connectivity has also improved the quality of life inside the studio, she said.
“It gives my child the ability to learn things,” Love said. “She needs to be able to be online to see these things.” For Love, WiFi access was also important when looking for accommodation. “My baby is being raised in a shelter and I don’t want that,” she said.
The Homeless Coalition’s director of legal affairs, Deborah Diamant, said the organization, one of the plaintiffs in the class action, now aims to bridge the digital divide with internet access in every shelter, including including establishments for adults.
“The state and city must work together to ensure reliable wireless internet access for everyone sleeping in shelters so they can search for housing, find work, apply for benefits, attend telehealth and staying in touch with loved ones,” Diamond mentioned.
City Limits’ series on family homelessness in New York is supported by the New York Citizens Committee for Children and the Family Homelessness Coalition. City Limits is responsible for all editorial decisions.