BOSTON — When Coralee Whitcomb and Chris Lee opened Virtually Wired a year ago on a downtown Boston side street, they thought that with a little coaxing, the homeless would walk through the front door to learn about computers.
But as one of hundreds of non-profit computer centers around the United States providing computer access to the homeless and low-income communities for little cost, Virtually Wired made a big discovery.
Those who came through the front door proved to be everyone from people between jobs and retail business employees to those unable to afford a computer, students, and professionals upgrading their skills.
The experience of Virtually Wired and other urban computer centers suggests that the gap between high-end users of computer information and information "have-nots" could be much wider than thought.
"We found there really is a wide degree of computer ... illiteracy out there that cuts across all class lines," adds Mr. Lee, treasurer of Virtually Wired.
Not only the poor and the homeless are being excluded. The growing economic gap between rich and poor in the US, according to the US Department of Labor, means many Americans with declining incomes have less access to computers.
"A computer purchase is the third-largest in our lives, next to a house and a car," says Ms. Whitcomb, director of the Virtually Wired Educational Foundation.
A 1995 study by the Rand Corporation concluded that as more US commercial and government transactions take place on-line, fewer Americans will participate if barriers of income, race, residential location, and age persist.
"Access, access, access is what those of us involved in these centers are pushing for," Whitcomb says. Currently the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is deciding how to define "universal access."
Advocates of the widest possible access - favoring the decision years ago that made telephones available virtually everywhere - want that decision carried further in the computer age.
"The FCC says universal access could be that anyone can plug a computer into an outlet and connect to the Internet or cable or whatever," says Antonia Stone, founder of the Community Technology Centers' Network (CTCNet) in Newton, Mass., "but this access is only universal to people who have computers or will be able to have computers. The rules the FCC promulgates are going to have to be sufficiently open so that access by everybody is possible."
Keeping nonprofit centers running today depends mostly on funds from corporations, donations of equipment, and the help of dozens of volunteers. Few centers receive substantial funds from government sources.
One of the first community computer centers in the US was the Somerville Community Computing Center near Boston. Established in 1988, it provides hundreds of low-income-neighborhood residents with computer access each week. The center asks for a $2 donation for a 2-1/2 hour session to write resumes, learn English, learn new skills, earn a high school equivalency diploma, or learn new software. No one is turned away from using the center's 60 computers.
"At the moment we have only one Internet connection," says Kate Snow, director of the Somerville center. "It would cost us another $7,000 a year to network even 10 computers on the Internet. This is where the information highway stops short, and the door closes for this population."
The center is funded partially by grants from corporations such as Lotus, Polaroid, Apple, and by the Boston Foundation.
At Virtually Wired, funding has yet to reach the level where Whitcomb and Lee can receive a salary. "We are self-sufficient otherwise," says Lee, as the organization turns more and more to training other nonprofits for a fee. "We trained 30 librarians for the city of Boston, and at night we train minority college students for a national foundation."
One of the most innovative nonprofit computer centers in the country opened last month in Compton, Calif. Providing access to meet inner-city needs, the Metro Blue Line TeleVillage is located in a commuter train station. It received a $500,000 grant from the Blue Line transit authority and set up shop in a building where all local transportation systems converge.
Billed as "community access to the future," the center is used primarily by children for homework and Internet surfing.
The village connects with other centers in the state for long-distance video education, offers classes in computer literacy, and provides computer training for Compton city managers. An on-site day-care center offers a Head Start program.
"Occasionally some lawyers from the local courthouse will drift in to go on-line, and some L.A. county employees who don't want to drive 15 miles downtown will use the tele-workcenter here," says Kwaku Jones, operations manager of the TeleVillage.
The TeleVillage also has interactive kiosks to provide information about low-income housing, and job opportunities. Membership in the TeleVillage is $5 a year for students and $10 for adults.