In December, a new collaboration between nonprofit Citizens Inn, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and Essex County Community Foundation will enable 20 low-income families to get online.

Citizens Inn will distribute computers, 12 months of free internet service and critical digital literacy training to the families, which are exiting the organization’s emergency shelter program to move into permanent housing.

“This means they don’t miss that critical telehealth appointment with their mental health counselor. It means that parents can work or continue their job search. and it means children can do required work for school,” said Corey Jackson, executive director of Citizens Inn, which helps individuals and families overcome hunger and homelessness. “It means they don’t have to figure out how they’re going to get to the library because they don’t have an internet connection at home.”

At any given time, Citizens Inn is providing emergency shelter for up to 35 families, most of whom arrive with little more than a couple of bags of clothes. While sheltering with Citizens Inn, these families have access to a fully staffed and fully resourced onsite computer lab. The digital gap occurs, however, when these families leave the shelter to move into permanent housing. When every penny is going toward rent, food and other basic needs, paying for devices, internet service and training becomes out of reach.

“They’re so well set up when they’re with us, then boom, it’s lost,” said Jackson, who added that while digital connectivity might be just one tool in a family’s toolbox, it’s a critical one – especially in a post-pandemic world. “They are making progress and building momentum. If that gets set back in any sort of way, it puts them off track.”

This new digital access program could help change that trajectory and, if successful, could also become a model for other organizations across Essex County and the state. But collaboration is key.

“The Massachusetts Broadband Institute’s partnership with ECCF and Citizens Inn represents an important step forward in advancing digital equity for homeless families in transition,” said Michael Baldino, Director of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute.

Families and individuals experiencing homelessness are among the most economically vulnerable residents in the region and in today’s world, they need digital access to successfully fulfill their most basic needs. But they are also the least likely to be able access it – especially as they transition from shelters to permanent housing. With homelessness rates on the rise pre-COVID, and with pandemic uncertainty still looming, this catch-22 is a challenge that’s not going away any time soon.

“If anything, we’re going to see the need for digital equity support increase,” said Kate Machet, ECCF’s director for strategic initiatives, “Which is what makes forming systems solutions around this issue so critical.”

New, innovative collaborations like the Citizens Inn pilot program have been launched across Essex County since the summer kickoff of Advancing Digital Equity in Essex County, ECCF’s initiative to bridge the digital divide in our region. In Essex County, one out of every five families lack a basic computer and nearly 60,000 households do not have high-speed Internet. Like other inequities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the digital divide disproportionately impacts economically disadvantaged residents and people of color.

The issue quickly became a rising concern last year when nearly every aspect of our lives went virtual. During conversations facilitated by ECCF, hundreds of local leaders have since weighed in on how critical digital access is to all residents, and a new coalition made up of nonprofit, business and community leaders, legislators, educators and residents continues to brainstorm and innovate ways in which we can work together to make this a reality.

“So many people and organizations have already stepped up to support these efforts and become partners in the work,” said Machet. “Digital connectivity is no longer a privilege; it’s a basic necessity, and ECCF is committed to working side-by-side with all stakeholders to ensure every resident has access.”

It could make the difference in the life of a single mother supporting her family, a student working towards a diploma or degree or an individual seeking services or mental health support.

“I feel like now is the time that digital equity could be making a big difference in the lives of so many of our families,” said Jackson.

To learn more Advancing Digital Equity in Essex County and to share ideas or suggestions on how we can expand this work, please visit eccf.org/digital-equity/.

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