Within four years, a Charlotte organization hopes to connect 80 percent of people in federally assisted housing to the internet.
ConnectHomeUSA is a national initiative focused on providing HUD communities with affordable broadband internet, technology to connect, and access to free digital and media literacy training. The movement started in 2015, and at that time 30 percent of Mecklenburg County HUD residents were connected online.
In an April 12 meeting of two dozen Charlotte community leaders to plan local steps for the initiative, the first-year goal for the program became clear — move connected residents from 30 to 35 percent.
“What I’m most impressed about with the ConnectHomeUSA initiative is the fact that as soon as people find out about this opportunity and the promise of knowledge being power, and having a disposable income to break the cycles of generational poverty, getting into building wealth for a generation — that’s very exciting and good news,” said J’Tanya Adams, Charlotte leader for EveryoneOn.
“To find out that there is a path forward that is not as hard to traverse as one might think – EveryoneOn is excellent in making that point — to find out that in your life you can achieve what we consider to be the American dream,” Adams said. “That’s what this thing is all about, being a citizen of the future and not feeling like an outcast in your own community.”
ConnectHomeUSA partners with non-profit organizations, governments, and private industry to provide free low-cost broadband access, devices, and digital and media training to low-income families. For most households, three key reasons for computer access are education, workforce development, and access to healthcare information. ConnectHomeUSA data indicate that 96.5 percent of people use the internet for education, 84 percent use it to apply for jobs, and 59 percent use it for healthcare.
“The residents that we house are considered our working poor, on a very low income, who are in need of affordable housing,” said Tomico Evans, senior vice president for client services at the Charlotte Housing Authority. “Affording things such as the internet is not really a priority for them. They have to use their funds on maintaining their housing, putting food on the table, and providing basic needs for their children. So having internet access is just something that many of them just don’t have room in their budgets to afford. So I’m excited about the possibilities for them to be able to get this kind of access in their homes.”
The organization’s specific focus is families with children in grades K-12. It partners with other organizations to offer training in the basic components of a computer. The starting point is four Charlotte housing communities – Dillehay Courts, Meadow Oaks, Southside Homes, and Sunridge Apartments.
Dottie Stowe, a resident of Southside Homes, is planning for a future with a broader set of online opportunities for many age groups.
“We are getting creative on how to implement each community with devices and services and providing digital literacy education,” Stowe said. “It’s going to have a large impact because right now most of the residents, along with the students, are relying on smartphones or similar devices to do homework or job search, and we realize that it doesn’t carry everything. It’s just an app. To actually connect them to the internet, going to websites will give them a better feel for what the information is. For example, teaching children how to get their school assignment and send it to their teachers. Now we can teach them how to do it appropriately and how they can advance this, as they get older, toward job search and job creation.”
On April 12, leaders divided into groups and developed deployment tactics focused on the housing communities. The next step is for a planning committee to summarize these into a specific set of next steps.
Christine Edwards, community relations coordinator for Mecklenburg County, discussed a few potential tactics. “What I’m really excited about is working with our partners at some of the internet providers, for example Spectrum and AT&T, and educating residents about their eligibility for some of these more affordable options,” Edwards said. “The other thing that I’m really excited about is working with residents who are interested in workforce development and entrepreneurship. We know there’s a lot of synergy happening in Charlotte right now around connecting people to digital resources so that they can start businesses.”
ConnectHomeUSA is looking for volunteers to serve as trainers, survey managers, ambassadors, and communicators. To volunteer, visit the ConnectHomeUSA website or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.