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Creating Community in LA: Email/Internet Access

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On a visit to the Santa Monica offices of Chrysalis -- a local non-profit whose mission is to help the poor and the homeless find and hold jobs -- I wasn't surprised to find a young, dedicated group of staffers and volunteers teaching classes and fielding queries from clients. Even so, I was astonished to see a computer bank filled with homeless job seekers creating digital resumes, checking email and surfing the web for employment opportunities.

Email trees, neighborhood websites and local meditation groups -- the subjects of earlier posts in this series -- are well and good for most Angelenos. But Chrysalis, which also has locations downtown and in the Valley, links thousands of our neighbors who can't afford access to the Net.

One of the group's clients is Lawrence. After a brutal childhood in South Central L.A., he dropped out of high school, became addicted to drugs and, for a decade, bounced between prison and the streets. Finding his way to Chrysalis after his most recent prison stint, he completed classes in "Job Preparation," "Goal Planning," "Relapse Prevention" and "Putting the Bars Behind You." But when it came to computer skills, he felt like a dinosaur: "When the instructor told me to grab the mouse," Lawrence recalls, "I was frightened and looked on the floor for a real mouse."

Chrysalis hung with Lawrence until he learned his moves on the computer. Before long he found his current job online -- courtesy clerk at a local grocery store. In the same way, he landed the apartment in which he now lives.

If this sounds like a cliche, it's thanks to Chrysalis and other heroic outfits who've made it one.

Email and Internet access are as essential as shoe leather in searching for even the most entry-level jobs in today's market, and Chrysalis offers both to the 3,000 people they help every year. "In this day and age, if you're not connected to the Internet, you are not connected to all the job possibilities out there," said Chrysalis CEO Mark Loranger. "Not being computer literate, not having email or Internet access is a barrier to employment, and we are all about removing the barriers so people can find work and become self-sufficient."

At a time of deep budget cuts, the City of L.A. won $7 million in federal economic recovery funds to upgrade and double the number of computer centers providing free public Internet access. Workstations are available throughout the city in libraries, workforce centers, and youth and family centers in low-income and non-English speaking communities. According to the mayor's office, the program will also "provide city residents with access to job and computer training and online search engines, including the library's recently developed Job Hunting Guide."

About half of California's low-income households have no Internet access, the California Emerging Technology Fund says. This non-profit corporation -- established pursuant to requirements from the California Public Utilities Commission in approving the mergers of SBC-AT&T and Verizon-MCI -- hopes to begin to close the gap with its $1.5-million Get Connected campaign, which recently bowed in Boyle Heights.

The City of Vernon put its access program on wheels. Through the non-profit Southeast Community Development Corporation, the city's Southeast Mobile Technology Center, which will roam seven cities in South and East L.A., is bringing free laptop access and computer training to the specific communities where it's most needed. SCDC executive director Cesar Zaldivar-Motts says, "Students and adults need web access like we used to need the encyclopedia. They're at a big disadvantage without it."

The L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center is upgrading its CyberCenter, which connects LGBT low-income and homeless people to the Internet. "We battle the perception that today everyone has Internet access," said Center CEO Lorri L. Jean. "The reality is that many of the people who depend on us, especially seniors and homeless youth, can't afford computers. For them, this is a lifeline." They also offer computers with Internet access at their Jeff Griffith Youth Center, which serves homeless LGBT youth.

Other venues providing electronic hook-ups to the poor and homeless include West Angeles Church, Faithful Central Bible Church and Central City Community Church; Brotherhood Crusade; Los Angeles Urban League; Boys and Girls Clubs for youth; PV Jobs Worksource Center; CCI Worksource Center and UAW Worksource Center.

Those fortunate enough to take email and Internet access for granted might step up and donate some time, energy and resources to help spread the connectivity everyone needs. We're not creating community until we're all connected.