Computing for the People

Addressing the Digital Divide in the Downtown Eastside
at the Jim Green Residence

By Greg Stone


Homelessness costs Canadians approximately $7 billion every year. $7 billion. In BC, taxpayers contribute $644.3 million to homelessness every year. Those are just the costs of reacting to homelessness, not preventing it. These numbers are staggering, and only address the tangible, quantifiable effects of homelessness. Other effects, like social exclusion, marginalization and social injustice don’t have a price tag, but are even more costly.

Named after former councilman and Downtown Eastside advocate, the Lookout Society’s Jim Green Residence situated near Oppenheimer Park in the DTES is a familiar home for a marginalized population.

“This is mostly for permanently residing people, or who are going to live here a long time,” says Bry, the Vancouver Community Network’s intern at the residence. “Some of the other buildings offer temporary accommodation, you just stay there for a few days, but this one is permanent. These people have a real community here.”

The Lookout Society has been operating in Vancouver since 1971. In 1970, staff at a youth hostel noticed more and more homeless men requesting beds. They applied for funding from the government to set up a small, 3-bed shelter, and the Lookout Society was born. As the problems of housing increased over the years, those 3 beds grew to the current 181 year-round beds and 57 extreme weather beds.

“It’s an organization that helps people in the Downtown Eastside, especially people who are dealing with chronic homelessness, substance abuse; basically, people who slip through the cracks,” says Bry.

These issues, chronic homelessness, substance abuse, and others prevalent in the Downtown Eastside are the drivers of an increasing digital divide in the area. As access to the internet and computer skills become more and more necessary for applying for services, getting jobs, and staying in touch, those with more pressing problems, like feeding and sheltering themselves, are being left behind. That’s where Bry comes in.

“I guess I’m kind of a computer tutor for residents in Lookout Society residences in the Downtown Eastside,” she says. “A lot of it is one-on-one help, figuring out what they want to do. How to access Facebook, how to talk to their kids, accessing services like disability payments, or even just putting pictures of their dog up on a blog. So it’s very individual. It’s stuff that I just take for granted.”

At the Jim Green residence, Bry spends every Thursday in the common space by the computer terminal, helping anyone who approaches her with computing questions.

“It’s really been about getting people to know I’m here and getting people to like me. Last week I baked cookies and brought them in for everybody, just so people would start to feel comfortable around me because I’m a new person coming into their home.”

Bry has also been spending her time at the Lookout Society soliciting computer donations from local businesses, and cataloging tech shortages at different Lookout Society locations around the city.

Services like Bry’s are becoming essential. Even with spreading issues like homelessness and food security, access to computers and the internet is quickly shifting into the ‘human right’ category, and no one can be left behind.

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