In a brightly lit warehouse in Cleveland’s St. Clair Superior neighborhood, Bevin Bowersmith walked past rows of towering cardboard boxes filled with power cords, mice, keyboards and computer towers. To the untrained eye, it looked like a mess in someone’s basement. But to the folks powering its mission, PCs for People Ohio is more like a machine with a single purpose – putting computers and digital devices into the hands of people who need them.
“We are packed to the brim,” said Bowersmith, the Ohio agency’s director, as she walked through the 14,000 square foot space. She passed two burly guys at the loading dock unpacking boxes, tech workers sitting at work stations fixing up computers behind metal shelves stacked with thick, black laptops, and retail staff helping customers with paperwork. Here, PCs for People Ohio ships out 500-800 computers to new and returning customers each month.
The group’s mission, Bowersmith says, is to close the digital divide for people across Northeast Ohio and beyond who cannot afford a computer or internet connection. The organization also keeps tons of perfectly serviceable computers from ending up in a landfill and being shipped overseas to Africa, China and Southeast Asia, where the child laborers who dismantle them are exposed to toxic chemicals like mercury and lead in the screens and circuitry. It’s all part of Cleveland’s burgeoning circular economy, which is being championed locally by the nonprofit- and city-led Circular Cleveland initiative.
“What the founders saw was … people were throwing away computers while others couldn’t afford one,” said Bowersmith of the agency, which first got started in the 1990s and has since expanded to more than eight states. The group’s work has ramped up during the pandemic.
On top of refurbishing, donating, and recycling computers with methods that protect workers’ safety (they have R2 certified staff, which involves rigorous training and documentation of responsible recycling), PCs for People also serves the private sector by helping them wipe data and recycle old tech. They also have a support line for their clients who need a hand with setting up or troubleshooting devices.
The group, which started with one center in Minneapolis and branched out to eight locations across the country, serves anyone who walks in off the street. Most of their clients are referred to them by a social service agency or a senior center. Clients who earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $64,940 for a family of four, qualify for a really nice deal — a $100 desktop or $150 laptop with no strings attached. Their clients are spread across the city and Northeast Ohio but share a common need for an inexpensive means of connecting to the internet. PCs for People also offers hotspots.
“It really goes back to that support of clients and walking alongside them,” said Bowersmith.
Partnering helps them share the load. Goodwill runs classes on computer literacy. They are involved with the Greater Cleveland Digital Equity Coalition, a multi-agency digital inclusion initiative organized by The Cleveland Foundation and including partners like Esperanza and the Ashbury Senior Computer Center, who refer low to moderate income Clevelanders to the agency.
“It’s been impressive to see the digital inclusion space collaborate and work together,” Bowersmith said. “It’s great to see so many partners and organizations doing work similar to us.”
She added that PCs for People committed early on to helping low-to-moderate income Clevelanders connect to school when it went online and helping people connect to the digital economy.
Even as the group eyes expansion into rural parts of Lorain and Lake counties, and also helps their newest office in Atlanta get up and running by filling orders, PCs for People Ohio is playing an important role in bridging the digital divide that became obvious during the pandemic. For the past two years, they’ve helped the Cleveland Municipal School District and Cleveland Public Library find computers and hotspots for local families, many of whom were still sharing one school-issued Chromebook among four or five people.
“The pandemic shined a light on the inequalities of digital access,” Bowersmith said. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve been doing direct distribution events at schools. We set up our truck and register parents and put computers in their car.”
The nonprofit is also piloting a program in East Cleveland and the Buckeye neighborhood to provide hotspots that connect people to the Internet. “What good is access to a device without Internet service?” she said.
The pilot is part of the Affordable Connectivity Plan, a Federal Communications Commission program which helps low-income households pay for broadband service and internet connected devices. The program provides eligible users with a $100 discount on a device from PCs for People. The group is taking referrals from other agencies.
Bowersmith said the process of signing up is not onerous and just requires a photo ID and proof of income eligibility. PCs for People Ohio’s tech supervisor, Henry Hartman, explained that most computers that are less than five years old are good candidates for donation. He added that he trains all tech staff, some of whom are referred by local agencies like Youth Opportunities Unlimited (YOU) and the Center for Economic Opportunities of Greater Cleveland (CEOGC).
“We get kids right out of high school where this is their first job,” Hartman said. “I’m a believer in giving someone a tech job.”
In addition to PCs for People bridging the digital divide, the group is also helping reduce electronic waste. Circular Cleveland, which aims to ramp up these efforts, is currently awaiting Mayor Bibb’s pick for sustainability chief, which is expected in the coming weeks. In a recent interview, project leader Divya Sridhar, manager of climate resiliency and sustainability with Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, said more announcements are expected soon.
In the meantime, however, PCs for People keeps on trucking — and accepting donations of old tech that can be given new life. “Most are still viable and if you donate it to us we’ll give it to a worthy cause,” said Hartman.
Read more of The Land’s circular economy stories at https://www.thelandcle.org/stories/tag/circular+cleveland.
Marc Lefkowitz is a sustainability writer based in Cleveland Heights.
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