In November 2020, after months of pandemic-induced school closures and remote learning, Legal Aid and the law firm Milbank filed a lawsuit on behalf of three families with children in shelter that accused the city of violating their state constitutional right to a “sound basic education.”
More than 240 family homeless shelters are now equipped with WiFi after New York City officials fulfilled the terms of a settlement in a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of thousands of school-aged children.
Already essential for job applications, apartment searches and homework assignments, internet connectivity inside homeless shelters took on acute urgency when New York City closed schools in mid-March 2020 and established fully remote learning. The Department of Education issued thousands of web-enabled tablets to students in need, but the data plans—first from T-Mobile, then Verizon—provided spotty coverage in many shelters and obstructed students’ education.
In November 2020, Legal Aid and the law firm Milbank filed a lawsuit on behalf of three families with children that accused the city of violating their state constitutional right to a “sound basic education.” City lawyers countered in court papers that the lawsuit, which sought full connectivity by Jan. 4, 2021, would have forced the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) “to perform the impossible” in too short a time frame.
Some individual shelter providers seemed to undermine that argument by opting to equip their facilities with hallway hotspots, though other nonprofits said that, absent a large-scale city investment, the wiring was too costly and would strain their service or capital budgets.
READ MORE FROM THIS SERIES: A Family Affair—Parents, Children and NYC’s Homelessness Crisis
By April 2021, the two sides reached a settlement, with the city agreeing to equip every facility with in-room WiFi provided by Altice or Charter and ensuring rooms have sufficient internet access before placing a family with a student.
Susan Horwitz, a supervising attorney in Legal Aid’s Education Law Project, said the lawsuit compelled the city to create a “viable plan” to close the digital divide in family shelters.
“Now that the work is virtually complete, a lack of internet access will no longer exacerbate the stark educational inequities that have historically plagued so many of our clients living in shelters,” Horwitz said.
Horwitz said Legal Aid will turn its attention to broadband access for all New Yorkers—including around 100,000 students who experience homelessness and housing instability but do not necessarily enter the shelter system.
City officials on Tuesday hailed the completion of the WiFi initiative across the family shelter system. The process, which included surveys, evaluation and installation, cost about $6 million, according to city data.
“Dedicated staff at three agencies worked under challenging circumstances to make sure that students residing in shelters had the tools they needed for remote learning and didn’t get left behind during the pandemic,” said Law Department spokesperson Nicholas Paolucci. “The settlement formalized the city’s aggressive timeline and commitment to get the job done, and we did it.”
The number of families staying in shelters has remained relatively consistent in recent months after decreasing significantly over the past three years, according to daily data tracked by City Limits. There were just under 8,750 families with about 15,000 children in a DHS facility on May 23.
The installation of reliable internet access in family shelters is a victory for New Yorkers often cut off from online activities.
The project completion also marks a major shift from just two years ago. In March 2020, parents and guardians in shelters told City Limits they worried their children would fall further behind in school after housing instability and other traumas had already obstructed their education. “I’m totally freaking out,” one mother of two said at the time. “They’re using my smartphone but my phone is very slow.”
Those connectivity issues continued for students across the five boroughs with the city slow to address the problems, court papers show.
An October 2020 admission by then-Mayor Bill de Blasio that WiFi would not be installed until at least the following summer elicited an angry response from his future successor, Eric Adams, and preceded the lawsuit.
“How is it possible that it will take NINE months to get Wi-Fi to children at shelters so that they can learn?” Adams tweeted from his Brooklyn borough president account at the time. “This is a civil rights violation, plain and simple. The City and internet providers have a moral responsibility to get this done immediately.”
Families with younger children have also benefited from the connectivity. When the city shut down, Starkeysha Love said she and her 2-year-old daughter found themselves shut out of most activities. Her weak cell phone signal and limited data plan prevented her from opening enrichment apps and programs for her toddler on her tablet.
In July 2021, more than a year into the pandemic, the pair moved into a shelter in Jamaica, Queens, equipped for WiFi, allowing her to unlock opportunities for her daughter’s development. The connectivity also improved quality of life inside the studio, she said.
“It’s giving my child the ability to learn things,” Love said. “She needs to be able to be online to see these things.” For Love, the WiFi access has also been important when it comes to looking for housing. “My baby is being raised in a shelter and I don’t want that,” she said.
Coalition for the Homeless Legal Affairs Director Deborah Diamant said the organization, one of the plaintiffs in the class action suit, now aims to close the digital divide with internet access at every shelter, including adult facilities.
“The state and city must work together to ensure reliable wireless internet access is available to all individuals sleeping in shelters so that they can search for housing, find work, apply for benefits, attend telehealth appointments, and stay connected with loved ones,” Diamant said.
City Limits’ series on family homelessness in New York City is supported by Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York and The Family Homelessness Coalition. City Limits is responsible for all editorial decisions.