Street club and church community meetings in Cleveland’s Buckeye neighborhood give residents a voice in their community; however, after the pandemic forced them online, residents without access to internet lost that connection to conversations that could shape the future of their home.
“We didn’t actually know how soon we were going to really need the digital capacity until Covid struck,” said Ernest Fields, pastor of Buckeye’s Calvary Hill Church of God in Christ. “Now, we know that, in order to guarantee the community’s involvement, we’ll never go back to a time when computers are less needed.”
Fields and his neighbors in Buckeye aren’t alone. Nearly one-third (31.3%) of Cleveland households, concentrated in communities of color, don’t have an internet subscription, according to data from Healthy Northeast Ohio. The city’s connectivity rate aligns with other racial and socioeconomic disparities in the region, lagging far behind that of Cuyahoga County and Ohio.
Greater Cleveland Digital Navigators, which helps people connect to the internet, devices, and digital skills training, can be reached at 216/307-6990 or www.ClevelandNavigators.org.
Digital connectivity, or lack of it, plays a major role in health, especially as the pandemic has increased reliance on virtual communication and more healthcare providers use programs like MyChart for scheduling appointments, releasing test results and refilling prescriptions. Even before the pandemic, applications for jobs, housing and assistance programs, all of which impact health outcomes, have been moving online, according to a study in npj Digital Medicine.
To mitigate the effects of this so-called digital divide on his neighbors, Fields forged a partnership with MetroHealth’s Institute for H.O.P.E. which has been working to improve lackluster internet connectivity in select Cleveland neighborhoods, including parts of Buckeye, for the last two years.
MetroHealth has built the infrastructure, yet the challenge now, faced by many local digital connectivity projects, is getting people signed up, MetroHealth officials said. The infrastructure installed in Clark Fulton and Buckeye can connect more customers than those currently taking advantage of it. Brant Silvers, who, until recently, served as the principal for clinical transformation at MetroHealth’s Institute for H.O.P.E., quoted the movie Field of Dreams, saying, “If you build it, they will come,” hasn’t been the case for this project.
An expensive project
MetroHealth’s Digital Connectivity Initiative began in 2020 in the community surrounding its headquarters: the heavily Latinx Clark Fulton neighborhood, which has one of the lowest connectivity rates in the west side, along with Old Brooklyn, Cudell and Linndale. On the east side, less than half of households had internet subscriptions in parts of the Central neighborhood, the residents of which are nearly 90% African American.
That’s why MetroHealth’s initiative has recently ramped up, gradually expanding to Buckeye, Old Brooklyn and Glenville to connect more than 400 households to high-speed, low-cost internet. In addition to installing wifi antennas, MetroHealth and its partners PCs for People and DigitalC are providing hundreds of laptops and training residents how to use them with the ultimate goal of connecting 1,000 Cleveland households to the internet by 2025.
MetroHealth appears well on its way to reaching that goal, especially with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granting them $100,000 to connect 500 households in the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) system, Silvers said. And that’s in addition to the $900,000-over-three-years kickstart the FCC gave the project last year. The project is also considering expanding to Mt. Pleasant and Lee-Harvard, Silvers said.
“MetroHealth really believes that the healing that occurs within its building and on its floors should flow out into the community,” said Bishop Tony Minor, MetroHealth’s manager of faith-based engagement.
MetroHealth and DigitalC offer internet service at about $10 per month, thanks to subsidies from Dollar Bank, which donated $600,000 over five years in 2020. Low-income residents, however, can also apply to the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which covers service up to $30 per month, making their service effectively free.
Silvers said that funding is necessary because creating the infrastructure to support broadband internet connections for hundreds of households is expensive. Each antenna, which can support a few hundred homes depending on the technology, costs “tens of thousands of dollars,” he said. That’s why other service providers haven’t done so themselves, he said.
Commitment to the community
MetroHealth doesn’t want to build antennas and leave, Silvers said. Rather, the project aims to invest long term in Cleveland communities.
The digital literacy trainings are an essential part of that, because, even with the hundreds of free laptops PCs for People provided in Buckeye, many people didn’t know how to use them.
Juan Silva works at MetroHealth’s Buckeye Health Center and runs trainings twice a week there. One woman who was used to accessing the internet through her phone didn’t know how to turn her laptop on for the first couple months after she got it, he said.
Silva structures his classes loosely, opting for a question and answer format rather than adhering to a lesson plan. This makes the classes more accessible, he said, for those with busy lives that may need to miss sessions.
“If we go in there with a rigid structure, everyone’s like, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, or if something comes up, I need to just be able to pop out.’ We need to understand that our community works that way, and just meeting them where they’re at.”
This initiative has also garnered interest from Habitat for Humanity, pastor Fields said. The connectivity program is currently focused on five streets in Buckeye, and Fields said Habitat pledged to build 40 new houses in that area after seeing the success of the project.
The project’s next step in Buckeye is to reach out to the community more, said Marielee Santiago, the director of transformative knowledge and education at MetroHealth’ Institute for H.O.P.E. She’s recruiting a community resource navigator in Buckeye through AmeriCorps to help raise awareness and sign more residents up.
“We’re taking it to the grassroots level,” Santiago said. “Working with faith-based groups, with different community stakeholders that are connected with the community and have that trust. Then, we’re able to provide that education to bridge that gap.”
Michael Indriolo is a reporting fellow at The Land.
Keep our local journalism accessible to all
Reader support is crucial as we continue to shed light on underreported neighborhoods in Cleveland. Will you become a monthly member to help us continue to produce news by, for, and with the community?