SF nonprofit expands tech lab for homeless and poor Tenderloin residents

The first year the St. Anthony Foundation opened its computer stations to the Tenderloin community, the technology lab ran dozens of computers on an Internet connection you might find in a private home.

When Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, a longtime San Francisco resident, heard of the slothlike computer lab at the nonprofit in 2008, he said he “found the right civic-minded guy at Comcast” to fix the problem.

“Within 48 hours they were digging up our sidewalk,” St. Anthony spokesman Karl Robillard said of the upgrade.

Now, seven years later, the nonprofit is set to celebrate something even more technologically advanced.

On March 2, the volunteer-based Tenderloin Technology Lab is slated to reopen to the public. It now has 50 computers, 13 more than before, and twice as much floor space.

St. Anthony, a nonprofit serving the homeless and individuals living in poverty, is in the process of consolidating its services between two buildings. As part of the procedure, the social-work center was moved across the street from the space it formerly shared with the computer lab, which now has a floor of its own at 150 Golden Gate Ave.

“One of our priorities was improving the guest experience,” volunteer Julia Cowen said. “They have a little bit more room to access the computer stations, just a little bit more privacy.”

The technology lab will have 33 computers designated for drop-in use, although some may be occupied at times for teaching and tutoring. Another 11 will be in a Community Learning Lab. Two more will be in a quick-use study room, and four will occupy a drug-and-alcohol recovery program room for job training and placement. The lab has also been outfitted with an 80-inch Smart Board interactive monitor for teaching.

“There is a positive energy and its pretty amazing how peaceful and quiet the environment is considering how tough the daily experiences these people have,” Cowen said. “Obviously, here and there we have a not-so-peaceful sort of confrontation.”

The organization receives no government funding and functions through donations and the work of volunteers like the 23-year-old Cowen, who has worked at the technology lab five days a week for the past six months.

“I wasn’t exactly sure coming here how much I would get from this experience,” said Cowen, a Chicago native who moved to The City after graduating from college on the East Coast. “The energy has played a big positive role in my time here. I was planning to go back home but there’s so much wonderful stuff being done at St. Anthony’s.”

When Cowen and other volunteers are not teaching the regular courses, corporations like Dolby, Zynga, Twitter and Yammer send employees to offer more in-depth tutoring in social media and networking, according to St. Anthony.

“Zynga is one of the most prolific,” said Robillard, noting that the University of San Francisco also offers used computer parts annually and Dolby made a recent donation of 20 new computers to replace old machines or act as backups.

Robillard said the lab has grown from humble beginnings. At first, it offered vocational services such as résumé and cover letter advice for the Tenderloin in which volunteers performed all the computer-related tasks. It did not last for long, Robillard said.

“It became very clear that you had to teach them fishing, not give them a fish,” he said. “There’s a range of classes. Our most popular classes are the most basic of computer skills. If you’re out there and haven’t touched a computer before, after one month, you’ll have an email and know how to operate in the computer world.”

The St. Anthony Foundation began as a free-food service in 1950. In October, it established a new dining hall, free-clothing program and social-work center across the street from its old building at 251 Golden Gate Ave.

Like its counterparts in the foundation, the technology lab serves a large homeless or very-low-income population of mostly adults from a wide range of ethnicities, Cowen said.

“There are a lot of people with tough experiences but so many success stories,” she said. “We have seen a number of the students who move through the classes and come back to us with stories of the jobs they now have.”

Amanda McNeal is one such success story. She is settling into a new job after using the old computer lab to access Link-SF, a website designed to connect low-income and homeless residents with basic resources like food and shelter.

“I am truly excited about the career change I planned and executed at the age of 60,” McNeal said.

The Tenderloin Technology Lab will be open to the public from 8:30 to 11:45 a.m. and 1:30 to 4:15 p.m. weekdays and from 10 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. Saturdays. Classes begin March 9 in the new Community Learning Lab.

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