Plymouth Housing Group
opens second computer lab
Plymouth Housing Group (PHG) recently celebrated the grand opening of its new computer lab in the Pacific Hotel. This lab is providing new opportunities for the formerly homeless, and the tenants run it, too. Sporting three computers, the Pacific lab is the second for PHG. The first lab was opened in October, 2001, at the Gatewood Hotel. The labs are available for use by tenants from all PHG buildings. Both labs are a result of collaboration among PHG, its tenant councils, Digital Promise, and the City of Seattle's Tech Matching Fund.
We spoke with James Conway, 43, tenant and lab coordinator for the Gatewood. James is co-chair of his building's tenant council, and has been instrumental in bringing computer labs to Plymouth. James has been a PHG tenant for about five years. He is currently unemployed.
Prior to the new lab, the Pacific had a few, rarely used, very old computers in a room that was only open during office hours. With all its flaws, the old lab was the result of hard work on the part of the tenants.
"I've never been homeless," said Conway. "I came to Seattle in 1989. I had $10 in my pocket. Somebody told me to go down to Union Gospel Mission on Second Avenue. I spent there a couple months until I got a job. I was working for a contractor for a little bit," he said. "And all of a sudden, everything bottomed out."
So James spends his time "giving back" to PHG.
"I've taken a class to learn to teach other tenants. It's something I advocated a long time ago. You couldn't ask someone to come every time and teach tenants everything. That's too much to ask. So we figured that if we taught some of the tenants to do those classes, then we'd have a support system that would be workable."
Train-the-trainer classes have been held to prepare a number of PHG tenants to become lab instructors. After completing the training, trainers can earn $15 for each class they teach to other residents. The classes begin by teaching basic mouse navigation. The computer labs are intended to help tenants to develop computer literacy, enhance technological skills, and overcome economic and educational barriers.
It had been difficult to get lab users to make use of manual sign-in sheets to track their hours. Plymouth's population of formerly homeless individuals, many with histories of mental illness and drug addiction, are sometimes suspicious about signing forms and accounting for their time. Data on hours of usage is monitored by Winactivity software. It tracks the amount of time applications are running, and allows for accurate data without tenant intervention.
"Our population mix has greater obstacles than your average population," according to Conway. "We have a very diverse population, so these kinds of problems are to be expected."
PHG created the Tenant Advocacy Project to generate tenant feedback on housing issues. The project was designed to empower tenants by forming tenant councils composed of elected representatives in each of PHG's buildings. Tenant councils exist to identify maintenance and communication issues in the buildings and to figure out solutions to those problems.
Jonathan Stansell, 24, graduated two years ago with a BA in sociology from Samford University in Birmingham, AL. He is a VISTA assigned to PHG.
"My official title would be Tenant Self-Advocacy Project Coordinator. I'm trying to organize the tenants and encourage them to have their voice heard within the Plymouth Housing Group organization so that they can have a say in the policies and procedures that are implemented.
"They're not used to the freedom to be part of the system. That's what my project's all about. A lot of tenants are coming from shelters, where it's very heavily managed with lots of rules. Because they have to in places like that. So the tenants are not used to being asked what they think.
"Most of our tenants are probably not going to be able to afford a computer of their own. They probably have higher financial priorities than that, so it's great to have communal computers available. From what I understand, in the Gatewood, those four computers are in use most of the day. The tenants are pretty excited about it. They can do anything from looking up something online to just playing video games.
“Email access is so important in helping PHG tenants to step up in life. People who otherwise wouldn't have this channel of communication are now able to give someone their email address."
When a lab fails to sustain itself, a lack of tech support is often cited as the culprit. With this in mind, Digital Promise hired Yu Ting Chang to handle technical issues for both labs' first year. Chang is a work-study student who is majoring in computer science at UW. He was hired through the UW Wired Community Technology Partnership.
PHG is dedicated to serving the poorest poor by preserving, developing and operating safe, decent, affordable housing, and by providing supportive social services and opportunities for homeless and very-low-income people to improve their lives. There are about 660 tenants in 10 buildings. Most PHG tenants are formerly homeless and have incomes below 17 percent of the Seattle median income. This is less than $650 a month. They also provide intensive supportive services, intended to stabilize tenants in housing and provide crucial resources to help improve their lives. The lab has become an important part of their service strategy.
Digital Promise formed in 1997 to address the growing problems of the Digital Divide, focusing on the needs of residents in low-income, elderly, and disabled housing communities in Washington. By supporting computer learning centers in these facilities, Digital Promise seeks to help the most underserved populations learn to use computers and the Internet. A diverse and powerful coalition of people and resources, Digital Promise works in partnership with the private sector, community-based non-profits, government agencies, affordable housing centers and residents to realize the vision of a community where no one is left behind. To date, the organization has helped start and maintain more than 50 computer learning centers in low-income housing developments in Washington, and distributed more than $50,000 of hardware and software.
The City of Seattle Technology Matching Fund provides direct matching grants to organizations with programs that help increase community access to technology. It was established to provide money to Seattle organizations and neighborhood groups for a broad array of citizen-driven technology literacy and access projects. Once a project is approved, the community's contribution of volunteer labor, materials, professional services, or cash will be "matched" by cash from the Technology Matching Fund. Funds are provided on a reimbursement basis.