Computers and Society
David D. Thornburg, Associate Editor
Another Kind Of Home Computing
At first glance, the Emergency Housing Consortium of Santa Clara County may seem to be an unlikely place to find personal computers. This agency, founded four years ago by Barry Del Buono, helps meet the emergency and long-term housing needs for residents of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties—two of the most populous counties in California's Silicon Valley.
To an outsider, the apparent affluence of this area masks its pockets of poverty—poverty that strikes quite hard, given the high cost of local housing. With rental units costing as much as $2,000 per month, many families who are down on their luck end up living in their cars or on the streets.
This is where Del Buono's agency steps in. In four years, the Emergency Housing Consortium has grown from one person to a staff of 35 people who oversee four shelters housing 600 people per night. In addition, the Consortium helps people find permanent housing and jobs.
As the agency began to grow, Del Buono contacted the Community Affairs program at Apple Computer, Inc. to apply for a corporate grant of computer equipment. He was convinced that computer technology could help his clients gain an edge on locating permanent housing. He envisioned an interagency network that would include a constantly updated list of low-cost area housing. Such a network was needed because by the time most of his people found out about a low-cost rental opportunity, it was already taken.
Apple granted four complete computer systems to the Consortium to share with three other housing agencies. The equipment included an Apple He computer with the extended 80-column card (expanding the memory to 128K RAM), a monitor, two disk drives, a ten-megabyte hard disk, a 1200 bps modem, and an Imagewriter printer. Apple also provided numerous pieces of its own software, as well as some products from other manufacturers (such as HabaMerge).
From Fast Food To Figures
The Apple Community Affairs grants are awarded primarily to nonprofit groups interested in using microcomputer networks to communicate and share information with other groups that have similar social objectives. Apple emphasizes the importance of cooperation between groups and the ways in which computers can help people cooperate across organizational boundaries.
When Apple provided the Consortium with the equipment and support it needed, the database envisioned by Del Buono became a reality. The legwork was done by volunteers and by the homeless clients themselves. "Pretty soon we were coming up with incredible stuff," says Del Buono. "We had the information available on a daily basis, and it was being updated all the time. Walk-ins could now come to our center and, in a short time, could walk out again with a list of appropriately priced rentals."
The computers became useful in other ways, too. Because the machines also store information about the Consortium's clients, it's easy to compile detailed statistics on them. This type of information is important to an agency that obtains funding from public sources.
Perhaps more importantly, the computers have provided opportunities for the clients themselves to learn how to use today's technology. One woman who had last worked for a fast-food restaurant is now the agency's statistician. She is so good at her job that she recently led a workshop at Apple. Other formerly homeless people working for the Consortium are also acquiring job skills that are transferable to the private sector. They are seeing how access to technology has a direct impact on improving their lives. This helps them recognize the importance of developing appropriate job skills in the information age.
Meanwhile, thanks to the combined efforts of the clients and volunteers, the Consortium's constantly updated housing list is so valuable that it's now being sold to other agencies on a subscription basis. Even corporations are calling the Consortium to get rental information for their new employees!
Del Buono is convinced the Consortium couldn't be what it is today without the help of computers. His agency is decentralized, operating four shelters in two counties, and is linked to other agencies as well.
Above all, Del Buono has shown that computer technology can benefit the very poor—to create a concrete product that improves their quality of life. "When you don't have a lot of money, you need a competitive edge," he says. "That's what we get with the computer."
For more information on the Apple Community Affairs program, contact Fred Silverman at Apple Computer, 20525 Mariani Avenue, Cupertino, CA 95014. Tax deductible donations can be made to the Emergency Housing Consortium of Santa Clara County, P.O. Box 2346, San Jose, CA 95109.