Brighton Housing Trust is no housing giant – but it’s a massive technological help to its clients. Jess McCabe reports
Tim Hughes rummages in a plastic shopping bag, pulling out some crumpled pieces of paper. The 56-year-old, with a Brighton Seagulls football scarf slung around his neck, has dug out the certificates he earned for completing three computer classes organised by housing and support provider Brighton Housing Trust. One is for learning to use Facebook. Another is for the more utilitarian ‘understanding public services online’.
We are in the lobby of BHT’s office on London Road – a few minutes’ walk from Brighton Pavilion. The trust, which has about 300 tenants and supports around 8,000 others, has transformed its reception into an internet café for the use of its clients, with some nice leather chairs, a radio, and six computers set up to access the internet, including some in private booths. This is just one example of how the trust is providing free internet access for its clients and tenants, after BHT decided it was the best thing it could do to help tenants enter the digital age.
‘There’s not a significant cost,’ explains BHT’s chief executive Andy Winter – the trust has spent £18,000 since 2010 on 40 Windows desktops at six drop-in and 12 residential locations, and wi-fi at 31 locations, each costing £25 to £50 a month.
In October 2012, BHT surveyed its clients and found that just 17 per cent of those who live in Brighton and 27 per cent of all clients across the trust’s East Sussex operations had access to the internet independently of the trust.
All but a handful of clients now have internet access through the 24 different services the trust provides, through computers hooked up to the internet and around 40 wi-fi hotspots.
Each client has the password to access BHT’s wi-fi, which is the same across all its facilities in Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings. The exception is one of BHT’s supported accommodation projects for recovering addicts, where online access could prove disruptive. Some content is filtered to prevent abuse.
Source: Alexis Maryon
‘They have the same password to access the wi-fi that I do. We try to do it on a basis of equality,’ explains Mr Winter. BHT also offers training such as the courses Mr Hughes has participated in.
Mr Hughes, a private tenant who BHT has helped to stay in his home by assisting him to apply for disability living allowance, has been making enthusiastic use of the internet café and courses to make the best use of the internet access. Now, he drops into BHT’s offices to use the computers a few times a week, helping other clients get to grips with the basics.
‘I do sometimes help people find things online. The other day, someone wanted to see a pop video of Fire by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, and I managed to find that for them, which makes you feel a bit useful,’ he recalls.
Helping clients dig out progressive rock videos from the 1960s might sound like a tenuous use of a social landlord’s resources, but Mr Winter advocates handing autonomy to clients so they can make the most of the internet revolution.
The origins of the free wi-fi programme date back to about 2009, when Mr Winter began to realise the importance of internet access. ‘If there’s no wi-fi at a conference, I feel affected and slightly annoyed,’ he says. ‘More and more was going online, and I was benefitting from it, but our clients were excluded.’
And offline clients were cut off from some crucially important services, such as bidding for social homes and the forthcoming switch to universal credit. This will bundle together most existing benefits into one monthly payment and the government expects that 80 per cent of applications for universal credit should be made online.
Larger social landlords have been able to opt for more expensive measures to harness the digital revolution and help tenants make the most of it. Halton Housing Trust, for example, is giving tenants tablet computers, while others design apps for clients to use on their smartphones or build websites that allow tenants to pay rent online – but these options were out of financial reach for BHT.
Free wi-fi alone won’t eliminate digital exclusion, Mr Winter insists, as it will take a combination of connection, hardware and training.
‘There must be affordable connectivity. Merely providing hardware and connectivity is not enough,’ he says. ‘The individual must know how best to use the opportunities provided by online activity.’
As for whether free wi-fi is really helping clients get to grips with the switch to applying for benefits or looking for work online, some clients are already making full use of the facilities.
But for others, it’s a more winding journey. Mr Hughes says he feels like the push to make everyone apply for benefits online is ‘a bit dodgy’.
‘It’s alright for the youngsters, because they grew up with it and they’re used to it. But for people of my age group, computers are more a sci-fi thing until fairly recently,’ he says. ‘My generation are having to wise up.’
Brighton Housing Trust’s survey of 136 clients in October 2012 revealed:
86 per cent
had used a computer
77 per cent
had sent an email
69 per cent
had an email address
51 per cent
had their own PC, tablet or smartphone that allowed them to go online
73 per cent
only have access to the internet because of BHT
Searching for work
João Seguro, 35, is a former sailor from Portugal, who ended up sleeping rough in Brighton for three months. Mr Seguro first felt the benefits of Brighton Housing Trust’s push to give clients access to the internet when he was staying in its shared accommodation earlier this year.
‘In shared accommodation we had 24-hour access to a computer, we had our own log in which was for the network, at any facilities of BHT throughout Brighton and Hove,’ he explains. Clients can use a private room to go online. ‘It’s like an office with a computer. Each one has its own private, perfect internet connection. It doesn’t get much better than that.’
He has used these facilities to start looking for jobs online, and network with potential contacts on LinkedIn. Mr Seguro explains one of the benefits is he can use his internet history and emails to prove he has been looking for work – even showing he was applying for a job at midnight on 21 December.
Now he is living in private accommodation, but still pops into BHT’s offices to use the computers and access the internet. ‘I can’t afford to have my own internet yet. They allow me to use their facilities all the time,’ he says.
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