HUD program aims to aid poor in computer catch-up

Complex to feature training, in-unit PCs

July 20, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

An electronic village is rising beside Baltimore's oldest public housing complex.

To address a widening gap in computer skills between the rich and poor, managers of the 58-year-old Edgar Allan Poe Homes opened a computer center yesterday offering free classes to its 298 families and residents of a neighboring high-tech housing complex.

The 303-unit Townes at the Terraces complex, which is opening this summer east of Poe Homes on Lexington Avenue, will be the first in the region to install a free computer in the apartment of any public housing resident who completes a two-week course, housing officials said.

The $1.7 million federally funded program is a test to see how much public housing residents benefit from having computers in their homes.

"We hope this will help narrow the digital divide," said John Wesley, spokesman for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. "The idea is to strengthen the community by giving people the same access to the Internet that upper-income families already enjoy."

The 19-acre Terraces complex, which is being built at a cost of $43 million on the site of the demolished Lexington Terrace high-rise, is welcoming the first of its 203 public housing families this week. Mixed into the rowhouse-style development will be 100 middle-income families purchasing townhouses, some of whom have already moved in.

Debbie Pickford, a spokeswoman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said a number of cities have built computer labs in public housing complexes as part of a federal program called Hope VI.

First in the country

But Pickford said she had not heard of any cities running a program in which all public housing residents got free personal computers.

"We believe this is the first program of its kind in the country," said Jack Kerry, owner of a Washington-based information systems company installing the computers in the renovated Poe Homes community center.

A study by the U.S. Commerce Department released this month showed that blacks and Hispanics are less than half as likely as whites to explore the Internet.

The survey suggested that gap was due in part to income. Sixty-one percent of white families earning more than $75,000 a year used the Internet regularly, compared with 54 percent of black families with the same income level. In families earning between $15,000 and $35,000 a year, 17 percent of whites and 8 percent of blacks used the Internet often.

Roderick Johnson, a 43-year-old African-American United Parcel Service clerk, took his 12-year-old son Brandon to the Poe Power Plant computer center yesterday to take advantage of the free classes.

`This is fantastic'

"I think this is fantastic," said the elder Johnson, looking around the smartly decorated former meeting room with 12 Compaq computers, a half-dozen instructors and a dozen students signing class registration forms.

"We have heard how lagging we [African-Americans] are in computer literacy. This is a crucial issue, because when you look around, you see that almost any business you want to go into these days requires computer skills," said Johnson.

Within a few minutes of entering the lab, Brandon Johnson was leaning forward in a padded chair, staring at a personal computer bolted to the table inside a wooden box. He was entranced in an educational game called "Math Blasters."

Clouds with addition problems such as "8 + 7" floated past a background of snow-capped mountains. With his mouse, Brandon controlled a tiny man in a spacesuit who leaped from cloud to cloud, solving the problems.

"I'm probably going to be an engineer when I grow up," said Brandon. "So I'd like to learn how to use the computer to create three-dimensional models so I can build things."

Gloria Clark, 43, a Poe Homes resident who said she has never used a computer, helped her 9-year-old daughter Ashley sit at a terminal across the room.

Ashley stared in wonder as another girl worked her way through a program that demonstrates the concept of measuring. The girl dumped cartoon vials of "bat bile," "moss slime" and "frog gas" into a bubbling witches' brew.

"This is interesting," Ashley said.

Revolutionize management

Ettereteen Craven, manager of the Townes at the Terraces complex, said the computers might revolutionize the management of public housing. Residents will be able to access Web sites with city job postings, community events and classes at the public library.

Craven said she'll be able to e-mail residents about late rent payments and send them notices asking for help with problems.

Some of the tenants don't "know what a PC or a monitor is," said Craven. "This will help them uplift themselves, find work, educate their children and get out of the welfare syndrome."

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