Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
Jessica Strom and Opportunity Home Help People Build Marketable Skills - Building for Digital Equity Podcast
Jessica Strom, Digital Inclusion Manager for Opportunity Home - the Public Housing Authority of San Antonio, shares the challenges of digital inclusion on their many properties as well as leaving us with exciting success stories of how people landed well-paying jobs after completing their courses. We also discuss the challenges for housing residents to avoid scams and the importance of free Wi-Fi to be ready if ACP runs out.
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Christopher Mitchell (00:05):
Before Sean does his intro, I wanted to make sure that you knew that on June 7th, 2023 at three o'clock Eastern time, the Institute for Local Self Alliance is once again teaming up with the National Digital Inclusion Alliance for a Building for Digital Equity livestream. It's gonna be great. You should check it out at building for digital equity.com. Thank you.
Sean Gonsalves (00:29):
Hey, this is the Building for Digital Equity Podcast where we talk to people working to expand internet access, address affordability, teach digital skills, or distribute affordable devices. We talk with those working on the front lines of giving everyone everywhere the opportunity to participate fully in the digital world, whether in rural areas or cities. Our guests here are doing the often unglamorous jobs in places that have been left behind. This show comes to you from the Community Broadband Networks team at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, where we have long produced the Community Broadband Bits podcast and the Connect This Show Building for Digital Equity features. Short interviews from Emma Guttier, Christopher Mitchell, and me, Sean Go Gonzales talking to people at the events we are attending to highlight the interesting work and inspirational stories to get internet access to everyone. Now let's see who we have today.
Christopher Mitchell (01:30):
Welcome. Jessica Strum, who is the Opportunity Home, San Antonio Digital Inclusion Manager. Yes. Just reading it right off your name tag <laugh>.
Jessica Strom (01:38):
Yes. Like Nordstrom without the Nord or billions of dollars. <Laugh>.
Christopher Mitchell (01:41):
<Laugh>. Yeah. Maybe, you know, if you come into billions of dollars, we'll have more to talk about regarding what we we can do in San Antonio. <Laugh>.
Jessica Strom (01:49):
I'll let you know when that happened.
Christopher Mitchell (01:50):
<Laugh>. So what is Opportunity Homes?
Jessica Strom (01:55):
So Opportunity Home is the Housing authority here in the San Antonio area. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> we rebranded to Opportunity Home. It's becoming a trend amongst some housing, authorities to a shed, the housing authority name in the title, so that you're removing some of that stigma in the community and that you're showing yourself as more of that community entity.
Christopher Mitchell (02:21):
Okay. So this is, I mean, I, I'll give you a chance to brag. <Laugh>, I think of San Antonio Public Housing, now Opportunity Home as being one of the more progressive and aggressive in trying to get home internet access out to every unit.
Jessica Strom (02:39):
We are trying. Yes, yes. We are very much trying to do.
Christopher Mitchell (02:43):
I've seen you seeking grants and things like that. Yes. And so that's where I've come across you in previous years.
Jessica Strom (02:49):
We have public wifi available for our public housing units, which has been a battle and a struggle because a lot of our public housing units are very old. Some of our oldest ones were built in the thirties and don't have a lot of other infrastructure around those areas in a multitude of ways for infrastructure. So then we're also having to try and get signal through concrete and rebar and all kinds of different things. But we've been really aggressive in pushing the Affordable Connectivity Program and prior to that EBB, the emergency broadband benefit because every single one of our public housing residents qualifies for that benefit. And so we really wanna make sure that that is something that everybody is able to take advantage of and use that opportunity.
Christopher Mitchell (03:40):
Tell me about the range of homes that you have. Are they all like in like hundred unit complexes and things like that?
Jessica Strom (03:46):
So some are smaller and under 40 units, and some are across an eight block area with 1800 plus families in those areas. Some are high rises some are, like I said, multi, multi, multi block units. So it, it really varies in what we have. And there's a lot of improvement being done in for multiple communities. And then when those communities are improved and in some cases brand new construction then that internet connectivity is a really large part of how we're starting to integrate within those.
Christopher Mitchell (04:33):
How did you come to this line of work?
Jessica Strom (04:35):
So I've been in the nonprofit sector for my entire professional career, but my background was in history. I started off with the Holocaust Museum of San Antonio which is very different but always within that human connectivity sector. But the thing that got me into this specifically was my work with the Epilepsy Foundation of Central and South Texas, which is based here in San Antonio, but I covered 79 counties, which is about half of the state of Texas. And because I have had such rural area that I was trying to connect to and thousands of patients and participants across the state, I was trying to figure out a way to get people connected, to get people that were able to then come to support groups, be able to participate in self-management programs to help with their seizure management. But there were so many people that didn't, in some cases have access to phones let alone internet and sometimes power just electricity.
Because there's a lot of areas in Texas that have just issues with even having electricity in some places. There are plenty of people that are quite literally using lamps with fire in their houses which you don't really think of happening right now, but that, that is a factor. So I was trying to figure out not only how we get our patients connected with being able to have access to that healthcare and sometimes their closest doctors four plus hours away from them, and how we mitigate some of those issues. So that's what led me down the primrose path of <laugh> digital Equity side and how I was trying to navigate that for patients. And then the opportunity came up with Opportunity Home and I was gonna be able to really expand that work that I was trying to delve into so diligently, and it was a really great fit.
Christopher Mitchell (06:41):
Now, what are some of the things that you've seen, or, I dunno if you've personally worked on, but I'm, I'm always curious if people are willing to share some of the mistakes or things that you thought would be promising that didn't quite pan out and what you learned from it and where you're going from here because of that.
Jessica Strom (06:58):
Yeah. So I think a big challenge, I think just organizationally for a lot of places is sometimes when you have someone leave, things go on a hiatus or a lull. And that was the case when I came on. There had been about a six month hiatus between myself and the previous person that held my role. And so everyone thought that the program was dead. And so I had to go back out and then reeducate people on what the program was, build that trust there, and people are like, well, you're not who I talked to before and where's this person? And I thought it was dead and I haven't heard anything for six months. That's because there was no one there to answer your phone call. And I think the trust building was really the hardest part, especially as a lot of people would be familiar with, with vulnerable communities, that trust building is often the hardest portion in what you have to establish first.
So it was reaching out and reconnecting with a lot of our folks in, in our communities that are part of resident councils and making them familiar with what was going on. And then we were also then changing how the program was done. We moved to the North Star digital literacy program, which for us has been absolutely fantastic especially on the data tracking side. And that's been a change for, from how things were done prior. So again, it's that trust and communication side of this is gonna be different. Let me explain to you why this is actually going to be beneficial for you. And once people saw what it was and then what we were gonna be teaching and doing, people were like, oh yeah, no. Okay, we're on board. So thankfully that that ended up being all right. But it, it was a big barrier at first of people going, who are you <laugh>? Why are you here? What are you doing? And what, what's happening?
Christopher Mitchell (09:03):
Yeah. And I, one of the things that we often hear is that these are people who are bombarded with things, some of whom are attempts to rip them off.
Jessica Strom (09:14):
Yes. Yes. Unfortunately, we've had that with our residents as well. And I know I've heard this from my colleagues at other housing authorities and housing groups that we've again, had to deal with that there have been people that show up and are saying that, oh, we're here to help register you for this government benefit, but they're not actually actually registering anyone. And in some cases they're taking money from people and pocketing it and no one ever sees the tablet that they've been promised or any of those things. And really predatory behavior. So I had to establish what that was going to look like for our residents and try and get that communication out there. And so now they know if they don't see our logo on something, if the property staff doesn't know that they're there that you might wanna then not sign up for that and then have a conversation with property staff and then go from there. If the person doesn't know who the property manager is at that space, then they probably had, don't have permission to be there.
Christopher Mitchell (10:28):
I think you had a run in, didn't you? ... They said they had permission and you were like, I'm pretty sure you
Jessica Strom (10:32):
Yeah. There, there was one in there, there was some new property stuff and they weren't the, the person that was there looked a little intimidating, and so they weren't super comfortable with having that interaction. So I then mosey on down <laugh> and was like, hi, I'm here, where are they? And that person happened to be in the middle of quote unquote registering an individual, and I stopped them midway through and was trying to initially politely pull them to the side and they weren't having it. And so then,
Christopher Mitchell (11:06):
Sorry little lady. I'm busy right now.
Jessica Strom (11:07):
Yeah. Essentially. Yeah. which did not go over well. And so it's like, okay, you are done. You do not have permission to be on property. You are going to removed and would you
Christopher Mitchell (11:19):
Like to leave the property with bracelets or without?
Jessica Strom (11:21):
I'm like, well, I have permission to be here. I talked to so, so-and-so, and I'm like, first of all, we don't have anyone here by that name. Second of all, the person that you need permission from is me <laugh>, so bye. Yeah. and ended up having to have them escorted off property. And it was a really that was an interesting afternoon, <laugh>. But yeah, it, it's, it never ceases to amazing horrify me how many people continue to try and take advantage of already vulnerable populations. Right. And, and, and scam people out of the little money that they have, especially for our residents on average. And something that people don't always realize is that an average income of someone in public housing is between 10 and $12,000 a year. And that's less than sometimes $900 a month for a family. And that's what I'm realizing, that it's not just an individual person. These are sometimes parents with several children trying to live on $10,000 a year, and it's incredibly difficult. And so five or $10 can't afford to be lost. And it, it, it really is a big deal to make sure that our residents have the, the right resources, but also are not being robbed of the resources that they have.
Christopher Mitchell (12:43):
Now, what is working well in terms of actually making sure people are well connected? Is is kind of like public wifi in the halls getting the job done? Or are you looking for like, what, what's your like five, 10 year plan for making sure you can keep meeting those connectivity needs?
Jessica Strom (13:01):
Yeah, so public Wi-Fi is obviously a large part of that because we don't know how long ACP is going to last. We're hoping that, of course, everyone wants it to continue to expand, et cetera. But yes, public Wi-Fi's absolutely a large sustainability portion for us. Expanding some of the solar nets that we have to make that more accessible for residents. And also to make sure that that's sustainable financially as well. Because that is a large cost as an organization to incur because we have 70 plus properties across the city of San Antonio. We have, we're a very robust housing agency. So it's not like we have one property that we're trying to figure out resources for it. But ACP and making sure that people have that access for home internet is really the, the biggest focus one, or one of the biggest focuses for me on the internet access side because there's, you know, we know there's a difference of you're utilizing public wifi at Starbucks or McDonald's, for example and the speed and what you're able to do with that. And again, just safety wise with privacy, you have people that maybe are trying to explore online banking and you have your personal information, obviously that's much more secure on a closed private system. So that's something that we're trying to make sure more and more people have access to. We're hoping to maybe be able to expand staff-wise, to have someone just dedicated to ACP enrollment, because I am one human and without the ability to clone myself. <Laugh>
Christopher Mitchell (14:45):
Did You pursue the, the grant to get some of that federal money to help? We,
Jessica Strom (14:48):
We've pursued that. Obviously none of us have heard back yet, but it's coming soon. So we're, we're hopeful that that might occur. But regardless, we're trying to expand. We have a resident apprentice program where residents are able to a gain workforce experience, be paid and start to learn different things. And so some of that is placements in different offices that we have. And our current RA is actually going to become our full-time Vista. So I'm very excited about that. And, and that is part of working well for us is again, that expansion, but it, it's, it's marrying all of the, the things that we do. So that digital literacy aspect, when people sign up for my ConnectHome program, which is the HUT Initiative that is digital literacy courses, I make sure that they know about acp, I help them get enrolled in acp, and then at the end of their classes, once they have successfully completed all of those, then they earn a refurbished device.
So sometimes that's a Chromebook, sometimes that's something else. But now we're, we're connecting those three points, those three legs of the stool for our residents, and then they're able to go through other workforce programs or school, and then be successful that way. One of my stories that just recently that I've been loving to tell, one of our residents utilized our computer labs in the community room and the public Wi-Fi. That's how he found out about the program, registered for the program, a single father of two, and went through the program, understood some of the online career search skills, rebuilt a resume, and he was able to get a position that at the time paid $38,000 a year with SAWS, which is San Antonio Water Systems. And he actually a couple weeks ago called me and let me know that he just got a promotion at work, and he's only been there for a few months.
And so he's been able to move out of housing. And so it just goes to show that these systems, these things that we are trying to do as a community, it really does work to drastically improve people's quality of life. And then long term for people. It, it's, and he's not the only success story that we've had with that. He's just a, a, a shining star that I, I love to highlight. But we've, we've been able to have a lot of success with residents and, and moving into different things, including one of our most vulnerable properties our Lincoln property and one of our resident apprentices with a different program. And she went through Connect and all of these things and has just as of a couple weeks ago, been able to move out of housing with a full-time job paying over $40,000 a year.
Christopher Mitchell (17:48):
That's excellent. That's, that's a great place to wrap up. Yeah. A great moment of hope. A absolutely. You Excellent. Thank you so much for taking the time today. Thank you.
Sean Gonsalves (17:59):
We thank you for listening. You can find a bunch of our other podcasts at ilsr.org/podcast. Since this is a new show, I'd like to ask a favor, please give us a rating wherever you found it, especially at Apple Podcast. Share it with friends. You can even embed episodes on your own site. Please let us know what you think by writing firstname.lastname@example.org. Finally, we'd like to thank joseph mckay.com for the song on the Verge.