It was only a few years ago that Darcel Jackson, 54, owned his own construction company, and even more recently that he held a job as an iron worker at $37 an hour helping to build the new Bay Bridge.
But after becoming sick, he wound up homeless in San Francisco. Jackson has spent the past three months living at the Next Door Shelter on Polk and Geary streets.
When the opportunity presented itself last month to meet a former tech CEO who is now trying to help homeless people in The City, Jackson said he knew exactly what to ask for: Free wireless Internet service at the shelter.
“We are a high-tech world. If you don’t have access to computers and Wi-Fi, you’re at a disadvantage,” Jackson told The San Francisco Examiner on Monday. “It’s all about empowerment.”
The former tech CEO who Jackson met in March is Greg Gopman, who was taking part in a town hall-style meeting on homelessness in The City.
Two years ago, Gopman became infamous for writing nasty remarks about homeless people on his Facebook page. But since then, he changed his tune and now wants to help the homeless.
After meeting Jackson, Gopman made some calls and found a willing Wi-Fi partner in Monkeybrains, a local Internet service provider. All told, the installation, equipment and service for a year is estimated to cost $6,000, which the company is donating, and is expected to go live next week.
Monkeybrains founder Rudy Rucker said during installation Monday that it was easy to say yes to the work.
“Someone reached out to us and asked for help,” Rucker said. “I am not going to turn that person away.”
Gopman and Jackson have even formed an organization around the effort that they are calling ShelterTech. They envision outfitting with Wi-Fi the more than 100 shelter and single-room occupancy sites in San Francisco, which would provide free wireless service for some 10,000 people.
Gopman said he is searching for funding partners to make it happen.
Liz Pocock, a director of assets for Episcopal Community Services of San Francisco, the operator of the Next Door Shelter, said the Wi-Fi effort is addressing a long-identified need. Those staying at the shelter have increasingly asked for access to the Internet, she said.
“There are just so many reasons why being able to be connected to the Internet is important for everybody, and because you’re homeless doesn’t meant that that’s not important,” Pocock said.
Having achieved connectivity, the shelter may build upon the effort by examining the feasibility of a computer lab or providing laptops, though space and funding may limit what they can do.
And as San Francisco continues to try to figure out how, or even whether, to create a public broadband network blanketing The City, these smaller efforts can go a long way in closing the digital divide.
In October, when The City’s celebrated bringing free Wi-Fi to 30 public places, Supervisor Mark Farrell said, “Internet access should be viewed in today’s world as an economic right.”
President Barack Obama even highlighted connectivity in his State of the Union speech in January.
“Today, high-speed broadband is not a luxury, it’s a necessity,” he said. At Next Door, the wireless service would provide people the chance to learn new things, research job opportunities, email employers and loved ones, stay connected to friends, “or just watch YouTube videos like the rest of us,” Gopman said.
He expects most people would access the service using smartphones, but Gopman would ultimately like to provide the shelter with laptops. Gopman also wants to ensure those eligible sign up for the California Lifeline Assistance program, which provides free smartphones to low-income earners.
Jackson said he hopes people use the new service to improve their lives. “What I am doing now is remaking myself,” Jackson said.
He takes courses at a free culinary school offered by Next Door and sells Street Sheet, a publication made by homeless people.
“I live in a shelter with 347 people. Everybody’s story is different,” Jackson said. “Some people are there because of economic reasons. Some people are there because of mental health reasons. There’s an older gentleman and his wife. They are there because they got evicted and they had nowhere else to go.”
Having access to the Internet could make a world of difference for many of these people, he said.
“It’s my belief that 40 percent of the people that are in the shelter, if they had access to the Internet and computers and got the proper case management, they can get out,” said Jackson.