What happens when libraries stop sharing Wi-Fi? | KQED extension

But anyone, regardless of their residential status, can use the free Wi-Fi in libraries, even after hours. A common example, McPeak said, is when students without sufficient bandwidth at home study from cars in library parking lots.

“During the pandemic, the library parking Wi-Fi provided critical basic connectivity. Among the uses, the libraries reported that “patrons frequently used the Wi-Fi in the parking lot to claim unemployment benefits and complete job applications while we were closed to the public,” reads a March 2022 report from the Library. American Library Association (PDF).

The vast majority of libraries – 93% – kept their Wi-Fi on during the pandemic, even when their buildings were closed, according to the report.

While Harvey Milk is the only San Francisco branch not to continue Wi-Fi at night, it’s not the only library in the Bay Area to do so. The Municipal Library of San Bruno also deactivates its Wi-Fi network between 11pm and 6am, citing “security reasons” (PDF).

A person in a library with chairs, desks, and bookshelves in the background.
A library patron uses a computer at the Eureka Valley/Harvey Milk Memorial Branch. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

San Francisco officials recently announced a new push to get more low-income families to sign up for free or discounted Internet service. The Connect San Francisco effort began May 11 and aims to increase signups for free and low-cost Wi-Fi services throughout the city.

Meanwhile, San Francisco library officials said they have received three direct emails and two public comments thus far asking for the evening Wi-Fi to be turned back on. Residents have also launched a campaign to reactivate the time.

“My priority is to try to continue reducing the number of camps in my district and in this city, and to provide the right kind of care to many sick people,” Mandelman said. “24-hour Wi-Fi at Harvey Milk is not among my top priorities right now.”

Correlation puzzle

The pressure to shut down the Wi-Fi at the Harvey Milk branch goes back several years. In 2017, the San Francisco Public Library, or SFPL, studied Wi-Fi usage at the Harvey Milk branch and found no correlation with the number of security incidents.

“We haven’t found any new findings since we released that report,” SFPL spokeswoman Kate Patterson said in an email to KQED. “We can confirm that incidents such as vandalism and other criminal behavior at the Eureka Valley Branch Library remain low and consistent with previous years.”

However, calls for police, firefighters and other emergency calls in the area have decreased since the change was implemented in August. In the nine months leading up to July 2022, there were 780 library lockout incidents, compared to 488 in the nine months after.

But that drop in emergency calls may not be directly related to turning off Wi-Fi, the library study suggests.

Jackie Thornhill, a legislative aide to Mandelman, highlighted a number of efforts their office had made to target the block near the library, including revitalizing a mural and helping some people sleeping there find permanent housing.

A middle aged white man sits on a bench with a library in the background.
Rebel sits outside the library. He lives homeless in the neighborhood and often uses the library’s Wi-Fi from his tablet. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“Obviously the presence or lack of nighttime WiFi won’t by itself make a huge difference, but it was one of many factors in this lockdown that made for an attractive location for persistent camping, drug use and associated anti-social behaviour,” Thornhill said in an email.

For several homeless people who live in the area, and who use the library’s free Wi-Fi, the loss of nighttime access has not changed their housing situation. Instead, it made things like texting with friends and family at night, playing games or even signing up for services, and more isolating nights more difficult.

“My family is here, this is my group,” said Joe, who calls himself Rebel and did not give his last name, outside the library on a recent Tuesday.

Vicky, who also didn’t give a last name, was visiting her friends Rebel and Hollywood on Tuesday. She recently moved inside after being homeless for several years. But she comes back often to spend time with her friends from the area, who all know her and her dog, Chunks.

When asked about her thoughts on neighbors’ safety concerns, Vicky said, “At the end of the day, I’m a paycheck from being where we are.”

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