Over the course of a normal week, SAGE provides a lifeline—both real and virtual—to the LGBTQ+ community in New York City and around the country.
Through its New York City-based CyberCenters, SAGE offers free access to computers and tech support to several hundred older adults at five locations, as well as virtual services.
“When you look at older LGBT adults that are receiving services, these are the older adults that have faced years of discrimination that have resulted in lower incomes and not having pensions,” says David Vincent, chief program officer at SAGE. “It’s their income that really affects their ability to get connectivity.”
“When you look at older LGBT adults that are receiving services, these are the older adults that have faced years of discrimination that have resulted in lower incomes and not having pensions. It’s their income that really affects their ability to get connectivity.”
–David Vincent, chief program officer, SAGE
With equipment funded by the David Bohnett Foundation, these CyberCenters help seniors with everything from checking email to handling online banking to managing their healthcare.
For these LGBTQ elders, many of whom can’t afford the cost of broadband at home, “the digital divide is real and has a significant impact,” according to Vincent.
While nearly two in three adults 65 and older have home broadband access, LGBTQ seniors may be less likely to have their own connections: The demographic has an estimated poverty rate of 21.6 percent, compared with 15.7 percent for their straight counterparts.
From Live to Virtual
SAGE, which launched in 1978, is among the nonprofit groups trying to bridge the digital divide for key LGBTQ populations, including seniors, vulnerable youth, and homeless individuals. Since the pandemic shuttered its real-world locations, SAGE—like most LGBTQ community centers—has switched to virtual operations.
SAGE has retrained staff to assist seniors with using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex, and other online platforms, as well as to offer other types of tech support. The group has also distributed dozens of devices to help connect some of these homebound elders, while also offering conference call-based programming and services for people who can’t get online at home.
“We had to learn how to support these older adults at home,” Vincent says. “Clicking on the icon means one thing when you know what that means—it’s harder if you don’t. Even for our staff at home, the WiFi might go down, this microphone might not work—all of this stuff is very, very challenging.”
The Pandemic Pivot
At the start of 2020, about one in five LGBTQ community centers offered an online program or service—by July, that number jumped to 94 percent, according to a report on the Bohnett Foundation’s CyberCenter Program.
A key component at nearly five dozen LGBTQ centers in cities and college campuses around the country is a Bohnett CyberCenter. Launched more than two decades ago, the program addresses a real need among LGBTQ people of all ages, according to Paul Moore, the Bohnett Foundation’s director of programs.
“People always say, doesn’t everyone have a computer—we have found that’s not true,” Moore says. “It’s also about access to information. If you were a student and you can’t be out at home, because you might get kicked out of your house, the CyberCenter program allows you to access information in a safe space. Looking up LGBTQ content can be intimidating if you’re not out. The CyberCenter helps to bridge that gap.”
“People always say, doesn’t everyone have a computer—we have found that’s not true. It’s also about access to information. If you were a student and you can’t be out at home…the CyberCenter program allows you to access information in a safe space. Looking up LGBTQ content can be intimidating if you’re not out.”
–Paul Moore, director of programs, Bohnett Foundation
At the UCLA LGBTQ Campus Resource Center, students typically look to the Bohnett CyberCenter as a social space to work on class assignments and to help create materials for campus events, according to director Andy Cofino.
“Some students prefer to sit and work alongside their peers in a community space,” Cofino says. “Others may prefer the desktop and larger monitors. And some students bring in their laptops and use the CyberCenter as a workstation to do their work using their own technology.”
After switching to a virtual model for the 2020 academic year, the center plans to reopen in the fall but may have to “rethink” the design of the CyberCenter. “In addition to ensuring our physical space meets public safety guidelines, we will have to adapt to a campus environment in which students may not want to be sitting in such close proximity,” Cofino says.
Helping Homeless Youth Connect
For less privileged LGBTQ young people, making online connections or accessing information poses a much bigger challenge—especially if you don’t have a supportive living situation. That’s where the PowerOn program comes in.
Led by four nonprofits—LGBT Tech, human-I-T, The Trevor Project, and Straight But Not Narrow—the program works with a network of nearly 50 organizations to provide equipment, recycle e-waste, and support vulnerable populations. Of particular interest are homeless youth—an estimated four in 10, or some 650,000 people, identify as LGBTQ, according to Ellie Bessette, director of programs at PowerOn/LGBT Tech.
Over the past three years, PowerOn has funded the distribution of more than $110,000 worth of equipment, recycled more than 8,500 pounds of e-waste, and assisted with stable housing placements for more than 300 people, according to the organization.
“We work one-on-one with each center to learn about their community and grant them technology that will be useful, so we can do our best to help them help their clients,” Bessette says.
With most partner centers closed for real-world visits, PowerOn has adapted its approach. Among its new initiatives are to provide Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)-compliant Zoom licenses, so facilities can offer video health programming and counseling services.
Under Zoom rules, participants must purchase 10 HIPAA-compliant Zoom licenses to use the service for healthcare-related communications. PowerOn has broken up the cost for centers by allowing them to use individual licenses, resulting in more than one million meeting minutes being logged, according to Bessette.
New Opportunities, New Challenges
While the pandemic has underscored the challenges of maintaining virtual connections, it also has brought new opportunities.
SAGE, for example, has launched two virtual programs: SAGEConnect pairs volunteers with LGBTQ homebound adults for weekly check-ins, both virtual and telephonic; the program has made some 500 matches since the pandemic. SAGECents is a financial wellness app geared towards LGBTQ older adults. The app uses prompts to help users review expenses, benefits, and savings, and will even connect them with a financial wellness counselor.
While these types of tech solutions can offer a vital lifeline, they also may require additional supports to help users feel secure in the virtual world. “Some people are excited about new tech opportunities and others are not,” Vincent says. “I think there are general fears about technology—that’s not limited to LGBT older adults.”
As pandemic conditions improve and places reopen, it’s likely these real-world touchstones—whether at a senior center in New York City, a youth program in Fort Lauderdale, or a transgender resource group in New Mexico—will remain mission-critical.