Committee Reports

Letter to the de Blasio Administration Urging Internet Access for New York City Homeless Shelter Residents


The City Bar, through its Social Welfare Law Committee,  urged the de Blasio Administration to provide and prioritize internet access for homeless shelters. The Mayor’s Office announced a city-wide plan to increase the availability of broadband internet access and indicated NYC Housing Authority (NYCHA) facilities will be prioritized to help those most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, that plan does not mention homeless shelters. The City Bar Justice Center recently issued a report documenting the devastating consequences shelter residents face due to their lack of reliable internet access. These issues have only become more pronounced during the pandemic, which has made the need to have reliable internet access essential to obtaining basic services. The report and its recommendations have been endorsed by a wide range of organizations, including law firms, legal services providers and community groups.

Informed by the CBJC’s Report, the City Bar is seeking the City’s commitment to include NYC-funded properties serving as shelters in plans to prioritize those City residents most impacted by the pandemic. In an effort to amplify the issues outlined in its letter, the City Bar and CBJC are launching a #Wifi4Homeless campaign. The campaign will seek to engage the public and partner organizations in raising awareness on the issue of lack of internet access and essential technology resources in New York City homeless shelters and urge the Mayor’s Office to include and prioritize homeless shelters in their plan to expand broadband internet access for low-income New Yorkers. For more information and to get involved with the #Wifi4Homeless campaign click here.


TAKE ACTION: Close the Digital Divide! Help Ensure Internet Access for Homeless New Yorkersthis advocacy alert provides information on how you can get involved with the campaign and includes a number of resources related to the issue, such as fact sheets, talking points and other City Bar reports.

Issue Overview Handout

Homeless Need Internet Access To Find a Home: How Access to Internet and Technology Resources can Support Homeless Families Transition out of Homeless Shelters – CBJC Report, May 2020 | Endorsing Organizations


August 14, 2020

Hon. Bill de Blasio
Mayor of the City of New York
City Hall
New York, NY 10007

Hon. J. Phillip Thompson
Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives
City Hall
New York, NY 10007

Commissioner Steven Banks
New York City Department of Social Services
150 Greenwich Street, 40th Floor
New York, NY 10007

Re:    Ensuring Internet Access to Homeless New Yorkers 

Dear Mayor de Blasio, Deputy Mayor Thompson and Commissioner Banks:

On behalf of the New York City Bar Association and its Social Welfare Committee, we are writing regarding the recent announcement that the City will accelerate broadband deployment in all five boroughs, prioritizing public housing communities, which have suffered disproportionately during the COVID-19 pandemic.[1] We appreciate the extraordinary efforts the City is taking to respond to the crisis – the pandemic has, and will continue to, expose the cracks in our systems that disadvantage our most vulnerable populations. We applaud the broadband access announcement prioritizing New Yorkers hardest hit by COVID-19 and urge you to ensure that the thousands of New Yorkers who are homeless and residing in shelters are included in these plans.[2]

In the midst of an unprecedented public health emergency and resulting economic freefall, New York City continues to experience a homelessness crisis. As of May 2020, there were 59,308 homeless people, including 13,523 homeless families with 20,044 homeless children, sleeping each night in the New York City municipal shelter system.[3] While state regulations require that certain services be provided to shelter clients, DSS shelters are overwhelmingly lacking in one essential service which could reduce the length of residents’ stay and facilitate their exit into permanent housing — access to technology. The need to communicate through internet-based applications is particularly acute right now, as in-person access to everything from city offices and classrooms to real estate listings is accessible online, and such online access is preferred given the continuing public health risks of unnecessary in-person contact.

Yet thousands of shelter residents lack access to the internet, even during this unprecedented time of need. The City Bar has documented this problem.  In May 2020, the City Bar Justice Center (CBJC) released a Report titled “Homeless Need Internet Access To Find a Home: How Access to Internet and Technology Resources can Support Homeless Families Transition out of Homeless Shelters” (the Report). This report and its recommendations have been endorsed by a wide range of organizations, including law firms, legal services providers and community groups. A copy of the report and an endorsement list is annexed hereto for your reference.[4] The Report lays bare the devastating consequences of New York City’s stark digital divide on the lives of our unhoused neighbors. Because shelter residents do not have reliable internet access, individuals and families are unable to search and apply for permanent housing, search and apply for jobs, participate in remote classrooms and complete assigned homework, apply for government benefits, stay connected to friends and family, access basic entertainment, or obtain necessary medical care.

Allowing the lack of access to remain unaddressed is unacceptable, especially as our communities continue to deal with the pandemic and access becomes an urgent issue of public health. The pandemic has significantly exacerbated the barriers resulting from the City’s digital divide, raising the stakes to literally life-or-death. This is a public health emergency, and it is clear that the City must act quickly in order to meet its basic responsibilities to its unhoused residents.

Ensuring internet access for homeless New Yorkers is also an issue of racial justice. New Yorkers of color are disproportionately represented among those experiencing homelessness. Eighty-six percent of homeless single adults and 93 percent of heads-of-household in family shelters identify as Black or Hispanic – significantly higher than the 53 percent of New York City’s population overall who identify as Black or Hispanic.[5] And Black and Hispanic New Yorkers generally, and homeless New Yorkers specifically, have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Any policy that enables homeless New Yorkers to prevent increased exposure to COVID by affirmatively bridging the digital divide they face, is an essential step to address racial disparities in New York City.

New York City Must Commit to Providing Access to Homeless New Yorkers

New York City has long been a leader in ensuring that its homeless residents have access to shelter, and these times demand that the City now lead the way in providing technology access to its shelter residents. The initial city-wide plan to increase the availability of Internet throughout its five boroughs was not directed toward its homeless population and did not include a single reference to DSS shelters or the unique access needs of our City’s unhoused residents.[6]  And while the recent announcement indicated that the program will now prioritize NYCHA facilities, it does not explicitly indicate that DSS-funded properties will be included.

In light of the above, we seek your commitment to include DSS properties in your plans to prioritize those City residents most impacted by the pandemic and to provide access to the following in every City shelter:

  • Reliable Wi-Fi connections available to all shelter residents;
  • Updated Internet-ready computers, tablets, or other word processing devices;
  • Wireless or Bluetooth printers, or printers that maintain connections with the shelter’s computers, tablets or other word processing devices.

This must be a sustained commitment and we strongly urge the City to consult with all stake holders as it devises a plan to provide internet access in shelters.

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss the access issues uncovered by the Report and to discuss how we can be of assistance. Please contact Elizabeth Kocienda, the City Bar’s Director of Advocacy at or 212-382-4788 if you would like to discuss further. Thank you for your service to New Yorkers during these challenging times. We look forward to working with you to help meet this moment.


Sheila S. Boston

Katharine Deabler-Meadows
Chair, Social Welfare Law Committee

Cc:       Mr. John Paul Farmer, New York City Chief Technology Officer



[1] Mayor de Blasio and Taskforce on Racial Inclusion and Equity Announce Accelerated Internet Master Plan to Support Communities Hardest-Hit by COVID-19, July 7, 2020, available at (all cites last visited August 5, 2020).

[2] This includes all properties and temporary housing facilities (including hotels) that are maintained by the New York City Department of Social Services (DSS), including DSS’s two administrative units, the Human Resources Administration (HRA) and Department of Homeless Services (DHS).

[3] “Basic Facts About Homelessness: New York City,” Coalition for the Homeless,

[5] State of the Homeless 2020, Coalition for the Homeless, March 2020, available at

[6] The New York City Internet Master Plan, NYC Mayor’s Office for Technology, Jan. 2020, available at