Cyberspace Without Living Space

Find a WiFi Hotspot with LinkNYC

Find a WiFi Hotspot with LinkNYC

Bartle Bogle Hegarty Labs outraged the mainstream press with its 2012 experiment at the Austin, Texas, South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference and Festival in which it equipped homeless people with portable Wi-Fi hotspots on T-shirts.1 There are numerous issues with BBH Labs’ use of the homeless people, as documented most caustically by Tim Carmody in Wired,2 who wrote that they were essentially walking billboards for the company on a mere donation basis. Part of the problem was that many of the homeless participants did not have the mobile tools to use the Wi-Fi hotspots for themselves. Unfortunately, Bartle Bogle Hegarty Labs’ initiative exemplifies the all-too familiar disconnect of projects and programs to help homeless with the actual resources that the homeless need. I’d like to use my personal story to demonstrate the problems with the internet access options available to help the homeless, when digital access is a seriously important commodity for job searching and, one hopes, and ending personal homelessness.

I have been a resident of the New York City Shelter system since May 25, 2012. Recently I turned in a job search log to my case manager detailing the 289 jobs to which I had applied since my most recent layoff on June 3, 2016, prior to which position I had applied for 3,010 jobs. I have previously detailed my personal story on my personal blog,, and introduced my situation to a wider readership with my April 28, 2015 Hopes & Fears article, “Trapped in the Kafka-esque Revolving Door of the NYC Shelter System.”3 Briefly, I have been unable to find work due to a mixture of overqualification, including a master’s degree in a liberal arts field, and a serious physical challenge (excruciating pain in standing in my lower back, legs and feet, that gets progressively worse resulting in spasms and falls the more I stand as well as shooting pain when sitting in a confined space such as a car for long periods, and overactive bladder as the result of scoliosis, multiple herniated discs, sciatica, and plantar fasciitis) that the Social Security Administration does not consider a disability because I can work a desk job, in spite of a lack of interviews (0.3987% of my applications resulted in interviews prior to my hire on August 17, 2015). Eventually, this led to spending all of the life insurance from my father’s passing on, before obtaining a relocation to Jacksonville, Florida for an abusive job from which I was terminated on a whim. In Jacksonville, the buses come once every two hours, and the city is practically unlivable without a car, in addition to being an environment I found unpleasant and had none of the network I had built up in New York.

It is not unusual for homeless people to get online. Many articles4, including a report from the American Library Association5 have been written claiming that libraries benefit from homeless people because they increase patronage when they provide computers with Internet access. A blogger for Library Journal6 disagrees as to the benefit of library access for the homeless, but nevertheless, I see many homeless people in public libraries using the computers, occasionally “obvious” homeless people, but mostly people I recognize from soup kitchens and back to work programs, having lived with them in shelters, or working with them in the activist group, Picture the Homeless.

In New York City, libraries are constantly dealing with budget cuts in spite of increased patronage, both in checking out materials and in computer usage, contributing to their low quality of service and technical problems in the available public machines. A letter writing campaign to the City Council noted that 27% of New York City households do not have broadband Internet access from home,7 while more than 80% of Fortune 500 companies accept job applications only through the Internet.8 Libraries have limited hours–particularly neighborhood branch libraries–and most have automated timers that rigidly shut off after a certain period of time, which can be a disaster if the computer is spinning its wheels while you are trying to save your work. Library Wi-Fi also tends to be lacking, and I often find editing longer inventory pages on my blog to be a major burden, even if they are pasting material I have already typed. What I’m referencing are delays anywhere from one to five minutes between entering a keystroke and the character appearing on the screen, and being lucky to not have the page crash entirely. I would not be so quick to judge the library if I weren’t able to edit these files more easily elsewhere using free Wi-Fi elsewhere, at Starbucks, at the theatre where my church holds Sunday services, or Columbia University, where I meet with Occupy Wall Street Alternative Banking.

The homeless community finds Internet access extremely important, yet in my experience, Internet and technology services for the homeless in shelters are strongly lacking. To give a few examples, every shelter I have lived in has had a very small computer lab with very short hours, as if its inclusion were only for lip service to the Department of Homeless Services. Recently, the newly elected president of my shelter’s Client Advisory Board, promised an effort to get the staff to supply Wi-Fi to the building, and the newly elected secretary wanted the lab open longer hours so that if he can’t sleep at 2 AM he can work on his job search. But the job developer has appeared apathetic and went so far as to tell me that, “since there are no desk jobs anymore,” they would not let me “waste my time” searching on the shelter’s computers. To date, the staff has made no effort to expand the hours of the computer lab.

The shelter where I currently reside is just north of Houston Street, across from the Lillian Wald and Jacob Riis housing projects in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York. There are some half a dozen Wi-Fi hotspots in range of the shelter when I turn on the tablet that was given to me by friends. All of them are secured Wi-Fi that just happens to be in the area. But even when a friend gave me his login and password for Optimum, these hotspots were of no use. They were “not in range.” Skeptics on sites like Twitter have made comments like the shelter having powerful Wi-Fi, people telling me to sell my computer to pay rent (they’re not only foolish in thinking a computer unnecessary for earning money, but assuming that I’m using my own computer), or that I’m a parody account. This is demonstrative of a much larger structural problem that hasn’t been given adequate attention: for no good reason people assume that having Internet access, let alone a personal computing device, is a luxury that homeless people don’t need or shouldn’t acquire before accumulating other sorts of goods.

Additionally, the storage of irreplaceable images and mementos is something that many homeless people struggle with. I have two desktop computers in my storage unit that contain irreplaceable files. Even if I were to escape the shelter system, the newer of these was purchased in 2006, and probably would be very ineffective at accessing the Internet in 2016. In my case, not only are there hard copies of family and pet photos, but my storage unit contains a large personal library of books, comic books, CDs, DVDs, VHS (mostly rarities) as well as the equipment to use them, and both soft and hard copy manuscripts, many of the latter never typed. To be a writer with no easily accessible personal library impacts one’s identity as well as interaction with the world.

Most homeless people cannot afford to go to places where they have to pay to stay and charge their devices even assuming the individual has the necessary equipment. NPR and Business Insider have cited homeless use of Wi-Fi it as a major issue for Starbucks in Los Angeles, 9 10 and the problem persists throughout franchises that offer Wi-Fi everywhere. Lifeline phone service may or may not include a smart phone (mine does not, and has had unlimited free texting only for the past year) and may require payment for data services (mine does). In New York neighborhoods with high homeless rates such as Harlem, stores like McDonald’s and Burger King post limits as short as twenty minutes for customers to remain on the premises. Such restricted Wi-Fi access policies are evidence to the fact that homeless people have limited options for internet access apart from places where they are required to go, such as Back to Work programs for those on public assistance or the resource room of a Workforce1 center if on unemployment insurance benefits.

Meanwhile, governmentally organized Back to Work programs, Workforce centers, and shelter systems seriously restrict computer use to resume building and job searching and do not allow users to do freelance work or personal business on the computers, even threatening punishment for using social media, sometimes even including LinkedIn. Back to Work programs often have unusable computers and make attendees stay in holding rooms for long periods or force them to attend internet literacy skills workshops that are geared only towards those with little to no education or computer experience, when the truth is many homeless people are familiar, and also skilled in this area. My experience at these governmental workshops has been that even when I have a resume, there is little help to workshop it into an effective state. These programs are mostly equipped only to feed people into retail/food service, janitorial/maintenance, security, or home health aide jobs, most of which pay too little to exit the shelter system, and are jobs that I personally am not in the physical condition to do.

Link NYC, a new program that is gradually putting up public internet and phone terminals in places where public telephones used to be has gained recent media attention with accusations from the city that homeless people had been using the stations to access pornography as well as business owners complaining that men were spending hours on end monopolizing them.11 Most public telephones that still stand have big labels that say “NO DIAL TONE” down the receiver handle, so one wonders as to their purpose. The LinkNYC terminals are posts that have vertical tablets that offer phone service, USB ports, and originally, Internet access.12 Michelle Charlesworth of ABC did a news report about allegations that “homeless people” were monopolizing the kiosks, with a strong emphasis on them looking at pornography, which they were unable to prove despite the emphasis. I pointed out vocally, while watching Charlesworth’s ABC story on Link NYC in the cafeteria of the shelter, that the function of Charlesworth’s story and interviews with local residents and homeless peoples using the kiosks seemed to be to ridicule the homeless (anchor Rob Nelson horridly described one homeless man’s mumbling as the funniest sound bite he had ever heard), making them appear selfish, hogging the machines, or as if they were conducting illicit business using the service. The shelter secretary chimed in after my comment, “exactly.” Meanwhile, the notoriously right-wing New York Post had already done a cover story claiming that “horny homeless men” had been using the kiosks to view pornography.13 After being briefly introduced, Internet browsers in free LinkNYC Wi-Fi kiosks have soon been scaled back and limited in their available apps and their searchability via censorship through filtering and hardware implementation.14 15

How did these reporters know that those accessing pornography were homeless? Did they assume? Most sheltered homeless people do not “look homeless,” and many people who do “look homeless” are housed. One of my fellow Green Party candidates (a female senior citizen) responded to the pornography access story with the retort, “So what?” on the grounds that pornography is protected under the first amendment and that watching it is perfectly legal if one is breaking no other laws. I know a homeless woman with two young daughters who complained to library staff about a man watching pornography in the public library, and they replied that as long as he is not in the children’s area, he has a right to do so, even though they have filtration software that blocks most adult sites and has the positive side effect of sparing patrons from following bad links from spammers. Still, the question of pornography use on public computers has become a legal debate, manifesting in a plethora of state-to-state rulings in the past decade.16 For example, 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the North Central Regional Library system in Wenatchee, Washington, where the Washington state Supreme Court found that libraries that install filters on their computers are not required to remove them upon public request.17

I myself have done another type of mischief at the kiosks, pulling up the infamous 1973 “Satanic Mass” by the Indianapolis-based band Coven (of “One Tin Soldier” fame) on YouTube and putting the volume on maximum to be heard by passers-by. I started doing this trick at the Apple Store, another place where the homeless can access the internet, mainly inspired by the banal music that plays in the store when they aren’t playing the Beatles, although I usually put on good music, not “Satanic Mass,” which was just a joke. In a way, I was trolling the institutions, but I was also testing the limits of access, and in another way, exercising my constitutional rights, also keeping in mind that Coven’s albums were supposedly pulled from stores over controversy.

The Apple Store has numerous locations throughout New York City. They are less useful for Internet access than other options for several reasons. I have been told to stand on numerous occasions because my kneeling makes my leg a trip hazard for people walking behind me (they provide seats only in areas paying workshop attendees can be), and most Apple computers do not take USB for me to access my flash drive. If they did, I’d be concerned about having had a flash drive destroyed when being ejected from computers, as I had happen at the Grand Concourse branch of the New York Public Library in January 2012, “Safely Remove Hardware,” having been disabled on the computers there, even though I asked a librarian for assistance before I removed it and before my time was up. For a commercial business, The Apple Store is generous in allowing people to access the Internet for fifteen minutes, as well as (at the Meatpacking District location) sitting by the window, plugging in your own device, and using their Wi-Fi. People often do the same on the steps at the Grand Central Terminal location, but sockets are not available. They do not enforce their fifteen-minute policy very rigidly, but if they catch you spending too long and you move to another computer, they might ask you to leave the store. The 59th Street and Central Park East location never closes, even on major holidays, so it can be a go-to if you need to send e-mail at any time, although shelters have had 10 PM curfews ever since William Bratton’s first stint as police commissioner, so, for non-street homeless, this would mainly be on holidays when the public library and many businesses that offer Wi-Fi, such as Starbucks, are closed.

Another New York measure: the Staten Island Ferry Wi-Fi, which is free. Unfortunately, boat is cleared with every ride, which gets trying when you are removed every 25 minutes. This access point also may not last long. Recently, it was reported that the ferry would be shutting off the electricity,18 but I see people using the outlets as I type these sentences on a laptop borrowed from a vacationing friend while on the boat on Labor Day, 2016. Alas, I did not get a seat near an outlet.

New York’s MTA subway system also offers Transit Wireless Wi-Fi in subway stations, but I and other acquaintances have had serious troubles connecting, and subway stations are generally not very comfortable places to spend extended periods of time.19 These hotspots are also not free to access, although the Back to Work program provides MTA MetroCards to public assistance recipients. When I used the service and reached my destination, Willowbrook Park, no Wi-Fi connections were available.

Although city programs like Harlem Free Wi-Fi20 (covering a total of 95 blocks, from 110th to 138th Streets, between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Madison Avenue), and the Brooklyn, Red Hook Wi-Fi Initiative,21 a mesh network, have been publicized by the city, it’s hardly reported or clear if these services work, let alone if they are kept up to date. The park I have tested that promoted free Wi-Fi that was not limited to Optimum or AT&T subscribers is Herbert Von King Park in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, which I visited in 2015 as Occu-Evolve tried to stir up interest in a new Occupy Bed-Stuy group to combat the rampant gentrification in the neighborhood, which had until recently been low-income. My experience was that I was only able to access Wi-Fi in the public park when I was near a closed building. The Wi-Fi was clearly located inside the building, because it worked only near the building, which was closed. The Wi-Fi there, as I sat in the amphitheater, the stage of which connects directly into the building, was very trying to my patience, and the park, though small, is, as with most parks, much larger than its one building. It also seemed to go out entirely after 6:00 p.m. and the meetings were at 7:00 p.m. On Labor Day, when I went to Staten Island’s Willowbrook Park, no Wi-Fi connections whatsoever were available, which is odd considering that the park is geographically contiguous with the campus of The College of Staten Island, where I earned my master’s degree; consequently, the image of students working on their laptops in the park is rarely seen there.

As I have already implied, I do not use the Internet exclusively for job searching. In addition to my WordPress blog and online journalism, I edit Wikipedia, I communicate with family and friends via email and social media, use dating sites, learn about my family history with, stay informed with populist, non-corporate news and listen to music via YouTube, the majority of my CD collection being buried in storage and the portion that isn’t consistently ludicrously derided as “clutter,” “violation,” and “a fire hazard” (truly an insult to my intelligence, and I have the photographs to prove it) by my case manager. As it is I am enough of an audiophile and classical music listener that I find mp3 of noticeably reduced sound quality in addition to liking the booklet/album experience. Limited access means limited ability to do such things. There are many Wikipedia articles I have started that are blatantly incomplete (articles about novels that summarize only part of the book, for example), others less so. I have notes somewhere in storage for an article on the first feature-length film, The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight (1898), which I was researching at the time I packed my property into storage, which has information culled from sources barely cited in the article as I left it.

The same misplaced notebook also contains portions of the libretto of an opera I have been composing for the last six years that are not contained in the Word version I currently have on my flash drive, which I pulled from my e-mail and was sent prior to the most recent version that is on my stored hard drive. This in itself is another problem regarding computer access. Although I have been able to scan my handwritten scores, no public library has music writing software (and both Finale, which I have in storage, and Sibelius, which I have tried when visiting a university—have very steep learning curves as it is–neither are so simple as pointing and clicking on the staff), which, for the sake of legibility, every prospective musician has demanded that I use to consider recording my music, and program installation on library computers is restricted to those with administrative privileges. I have a similar problem with screenwriting software, particularly with editing scripts I have already written, not to mention video editing, a nearly useless skill on my resume without access to the right equipment, as most job postings require the job seeker to provide their own software.

In today’s society, using the Internet to access governmental and health information is incentivized. It is certainly much more tedious to certify unemployment insurance benefits by phone than by computer, but certification opens on Sundays, which is not the easiest day to access the computer between other activities and the lack of open places where one can access a computer on the weekend. Further, it’s never recommended to get diagnoses through WebMD without visiting a doctor, for example, online sources tend to describe plantar fasciitis as temporary rather than chronic. Many of my physicians also take appointments through ZocDoc, which is more cost effective and convenient than walking through insurance loopholes to wait at a clinic. Still, non-homeless people have used information gathered from such sites to falsely claim that my ailments are short-term and temporary, despite their chronic persistence. In this way, the limited availability of Internet access for the homeless has a direct relationship to their ability to seek accurate medical information and register for treatments using the increasingly automated medical scheduling and recordkeeping systems.

In spite of the numerous abelist stigmas against the homeless, psychologists find that most human beings are not lazy, and have a need to do, to create, to communicate, and to contribute to society.22 I’ve always been bright, but since intellectualism did not manifest in me in a numerate way, there is far less willingness in society to pay for my welfare, and far greater competition for paying jobs, which will more easily go to people with greater access to resources, and to the Internet in particular. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” has become an antiquated notion, as commercial demand has outstripped not only attitude but aptitude in job preparation, even as low wage service jobs, which pay so little that they often leave people homeless for extended periods of time,23 are the ones with the greatest increasing demand.24 While I can and often do write on paper, effectively doubling my labor but pushing myself to revise when I type (which also means I have a backlog of manuscripts in storage that have never been typed), computer and internet access is absolutely essential for me to feel useful in the world as it currently functions, regardless of whether it earns me an income.

There are not enough jobs to go around,25 nor enough Internet access points, when one does not have the income to pay for them personally. Since the city gave the gift of LinkNYC, and other Wi-Fi initiatives only to take the services away or severely restrict and censor them, they have exacerbated the situation. By limiting and failing to offer Internet access to the homeless, they provide us with a top-down, one-size-fits-none approach to the issue of homelessness, continuing to play into the false narratives about mental illness and addiction, which affects only about a fifth of the homeless.26 Such public measures ignore that homelessness is primarily an economic issue. My experience has shown me time and time again that despite some efforts, public Internet access, a key to escaping homelessness, is unnecessarily difficult to acquire.

  1. Saneel Radia. “Homeless Hotspots: A Charitable Experiment at SXSWI,” March 6, 2012. BBH Labs. ↩︎

  2. Tim Carmody. “The Damning Story Behind ‘Homeless Hotspots’ at SXSW.” Wired. March 12, 2012. ↩︎

  3. Scott Andrew Hutchins. “Trapped in the Kafka-esque Revolving Door of the NYC Shelter System.” Hopes & Fears, April 28, 2015. ↩︎

  4. Richard Gunderman and David C. Stevens. “How Libraries Became the Frontline of America’s Homelessness Crisis.” The Washington Post. August 19, 2015. ↩︎

  5. Extending Our Reach: Reducing Homelessness Through Library Engagement. Chicago: American Library Association Office for Literacy and Outreach Services, 2012. In spite of the recommendations here, I find that since becoming homeless I have had more overdue fines than ever because restricted access makes it more difficult to check my account online and see at a glance when everything is due rather than go through each item for the varying due dates resulting from my extensive library patronage (not to mention renewed items not having the updated information). Conversely, when I had my own apartment and home internet access, I set my home page as NYPL’s website, so I always remembered to check my account on a daily basis and make sure everything was current, thus rarely incurring fines. ↩︎

  6. The Annoyed Librarian. “Libraries Don’t Need the Homeless.” Library Journal. February 26, 2015. ↩︎

  7. Jessica McKenzie. “Libraries Hope to Help Close the Digital Divide by Lending Wi-Fi Hotspots.” TechPresident. June 27, 2014. ↩︎

  8. Jessica Goodman. “The Digital Divide Is Still Leaving Americans Behind.” Mashable. August 18, 2013. ↩︎

  9. Anna Scott. “How Starbucks Got Tangled Up In LA’s Homelessness Crisis,” All Things Considered. May 3, 2016. ↩︎

  10. Kate Taylor. “Offering Free Wi-Fi Leads to an Unexpected Consequence at Starbucks.” Business Insider. May 4, 2016. ↩︎

  11. Michelle Charlesworth. “Not Everyone Loves NYC’s New Wi-Fi Kiosks.” ABC News 7, Aired September 3, 2016. Posted online August 31, 2016. ↩︎

  12. Patrick McGeehansept. “Free Wi-Fi Kiosks Were to Aid New Yorkers. An Unsavory Side Has Spurred a Retreat.” The New York Times. September 14, 2016. ↩︎

  13. Philip Messing, Matthew Allan, and Reuven Fenton. “Horny Homeless Men Use Times Square Wi-Fi to Watch Porn.” The New York Post. June 19, 2016. ↩︎

  14. Patrick McGeehansept. “Free Wi-Fi Kiosks Were to Aid New Yorkers. An Unsavory Side Has Spurred a Retreat.” September 14, 2016. and commenting on those recent stories / developments? ↩︎

  15. Efforts have since been made to hack the kiosks to allow a less filtered browsing experience. Re: Patrick Steadman, Robert Jensen. “How to Browse the Web from a NYC Wifi Link Kiosk,” Computer Lab. Sep 23, 2016. ↩︎

  16. Theresa Chmara, General Counsel. “MEMORANDUM: Library Internet Filtering Update.” Freedom to Read Foundation. July 2012. ↩︎

  17. Elizabeth Hovde. “Library Needn’t Support Pornography, Court Rules,” The Oregonian/OregonLive. May 7, 2010. ↩︎

  18. Emma G. Fitzsimmons. “Powerless Outlets on Staten Island Ferry Prompt Electric Reactions From Commuters.” The New York Times. July 21, 2016. ↩︎

  19. Andrew J. Hawkins. “The Entire New York City Subway System Will Have Wi-Fi by the End of 2016,” The Verge. January 8, 2016. ↩︎

  20. Mayor Bloomberg Announces Country’s Largest Continuous Free Public WiFi Network,” December 10, 2013. ↩︎

  21. Noam Cohen. “Red Hook’s Cutting-Edge Wireless Network,” The New York Times. August 22, 2014. ↩︎

  22. Peter Gray. “What Would Happen If People Stopped Working?The David Pakman Show. August 26, 2016. ↩︎

  23. Mireya Navarro. “In New York, Having a Job, or 2, Doesn’t Mean Having a Home.” The New York Times. September 17, 2013. “Employment and Homelessness.” National Coalition for the Homeless, July 2009. Jessica Hopper, Tim Sandler, and Cristina Boado. “Employed but Still Homeless, Working Poor Say ‘Homelessness Can Happen to Anybody.’” NBC News, November 28, 2012. Micheal L. Shier, Marion E. Jones, John R. Graham. “Perspectives of Employed People Experiencing Homelessness of Self and Being Homeless: Challenging Socially Constructed Perspectives and Stereotypes.” Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare 37:4 (December 2010), 13–37. ↩︎

  24. Susan Kryczka. “Many Future Jobs Will Not Require a Bachelor’s Degree—Where Does that Leave Higher Education?The EvoLLLution. May 2, 2105. ↩︎

  25. Elise Gould. “The Unemployed Exceed Job Openings in Almost Every Industry.” Working Economics Blog. Economic Policy Institute. February 10, 2015. ↩︎

  26. HUD’s 2014 Continuum of Care Homeless Assistance Programs Homeless Populations and Subpopulations.” ↩︎

Scott Andrew Hutchins’s writing has also appeared in Hopes & Fears, The Baum Bugle, Film Score Monthly, and DOTmed Business News, and anonymously at He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and communication from Indiana University (Indianapolis), and a master’s degree in cinema and media from The College of Staten Island (CUNY). He is an active member of organizations such as The New York City Community Land Initiative, Picture the Homeless, Occu-Evolve, Occupy Wall Street Alternative Banking, and is the Green Party’s candidate for New York State Assembly in his district. In addition to his artistic work, including nine scripts and a novel, he studies the systemic and political connections that have put a middle class job and a 1-bedroom apartment out of reach for him in spite of his credentials.

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