My team knows firsthand that the disruptions and barriers associated with homelessness make it hard for the 385 school-aged children living in our shelters to attend and succeed in school, even during the best of times.
Talique never missed class in first or second grade — in fact, he was awarded “best attendance” by his school two years in a row. Despite receiving a data-enabled iPad, there was often little to no cell service in the shelter where he lives. Shelter buildings are often older, large brick buildings that don’t get good cell reception indoors. Talique regularly struggled to connect to his virtual classes and missed lessons for the first time, which his mother, Tanielle, described as “devastating.”
The city’s task of connecting all family shelters to WiFi was a massive undertaking. We could see that the work to establish connectivity would be slow, but our families had no time to waste — students like Talique were already falling behind.
The week that school closed in March, we started exploring bringing WiFi to the building, contacting internet providers. But over the next few weeks, it became clear that wiring the building with WiFi the traditional way would take too long and cost too much. In April, families were growing frustrated, and we knew we had to do something to expedite the process.
Our shelter team put their heads together to brainstorm alternative solutions. We reached out to the security firm that had recently installed closed-circuit televisions in our shelters. The firm was able to piggyback on the existing network to install one hotspot for every three apartments, and within a week, one of our shelters was wired for WiFi, with all three connected by mid-May. Not only is the internet fast, it was inexpensive to install and even cheaper to maintain. Thanks to generous donors, we raised the funding to completely cover the costs.
Talique and his mom were one of many families who felt relief to have reliable internet. While he still misses his friends and gym class, he is currently getting good grades and doing well with remote learning.
Covid-19 is a crisis beyond any we’ve experienced before, but when you run a nonprofit that serves 60,000 people in one of the country’s poorest congressional districts, you have to be able to quickly, efficiently and affordably respond to emerging problems. City contracts do not cover the full costs of non-profit programs, so organizations like BronxWorks often have to figure out how to stretch and raise dollars and develop innovative solutions in order to support individuals and families.
Creatively connecting our families in shelter to WiFi is just one example of our relentless efforts to support Bronx families. But we cannot do it alone. We need meaningful investment in nonprofits like BronxWorks from the government, corporations, foundations and individuals to ensure the most vulnerable people in our communities can survive — and thrive — during the pandemic and beyond.