By Claire Spinner
Pasadena Weekly Staff Writer

During the pandemic, the world went online. In a matter of days, the internet became the only source of connectivity.

But for those who had little-to-no access to technology like cellphones and laptops, the digital divide became clearer. Union Station Homeless Services, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending homelessness in San Gabriel Valley, is hoping to ease that divide, through the donation of 40 Chromebooks funded by Glen and Natalie Kraemer, Hirschfeld Kraemer LLP and Xantrion, an IT support service company.

The Chromebooks were donated to members of Union Station’s Lived Expertise Advisory Panel (LEAP), advocates who are or were homeless. LEAP was formed to understand the needs of unhoused people in Pasadena and the San Gabriel Valley.

Shawn Morrissey, senior director of advocacy and community engagement for Union Station, said the panel is crucial.

“LEAP arose out of effort to lift up the voices of people with lived experience. No one knows better what the needs are for someone who is unhoused than someone who lived or is living that same experience,” Morrissey said.

Formerly homeless, Morrissey said he is aware of the devastation of the digital divide. It’s easy to feel isolated as a homeless person.

“Homelessness: We talk about it being a trauma,” Morrissey said.

“Part of that trauma is this kind of exquisite disconnect that you have from your community and the people around you. It’s this interesting incongruent contrast — what it looks like to exist as an unhoused person right next to the thrum and abundance of the world happening just a few feet away from you. With the type of connectivity most people have, it’s even more apparent how disconnected you are.”

It was the pandemic, Morrissey said, that amplified the issues caused by lack of access to internet-connected devices.

“The problem was really brought to the floor when the pandemic hit. LEAP, for example, regularly met in-person, and that changed overnight. What we found was that a lot of our members didn’t have easy access to attend meetings virtually,” Morrissey said.

After talking over the issue with one of Union Station’s interns, the son of Natalie and Glen Kraemer, Morrissey connected with Hirschfeld Kraemer LLP, a long-time client of Xantrion.

Xantrion president Anne Bisagno said she felt her company should be part of the solution to Union Station’s problem, as it’s ingrained in the company’s mission.

“We are a longstanding support provider for Glen Kraemer and Hirschfeld Kraemer LLP, and he and his son had been very active in working with Union Station,” Bisagno said.

“We’ve helped a lot of causes that Glen has supported over the years. When he put forward the idea of providing Chromebooks, we were all over it. A huge part of our company culture is supporting our employees and the communities we live in.”

Bisagno said she and her Xantrion staff have empathy for those that are unable to access information and internet technology.

“This really goes to the heart of what we believe in and what we are involved in, which is information technology,” she said.

“We know how critical it has become for everyone these days, especially people like the folks at Union Station, who are trying to rebuild their lives. It was a wonderful opportunity for us to be able to help this group of people minimize that digital divide, because it is just so significant in this country, and we see that. This is one small way we can help.”

Morrissey said donating the Chromebooks to LEAP members will improve the connectivity within and outside of the team. That includes case managers and housing recruiters.

“The ability to provide devices and connectivity to people just levels the playing field a bit and gives them access to something we may have taken for granted for years,” Morrissey said. “We were extremely lucky to have been gifted the Chromebooks, because without this kind of technology, even something as simple as making a doctor’s appointment can be nearly impossible.”

Morrissey and his advocacy team are hoping to find ways to provide even more Chromebooks to Union Station’s clients who are in need.

“I would love to see us expand this,” Morrissey said. “We started off with 40 Chromebooks and I would love to see us try to expand this so we can get this kind of connectivity into the hands of everybody who needs it. To get everybody connected is a huge goal of ours.”

At Union Station, Morrissey is excited see LEAP members using their new laptops. He said, ultimately, he hopes that, through programs like this, people are able to see beyond the harmful stereotypes often cast on homeless people.

“The most important thing we are doing, especially in the climate that we are experiencing today in the country, is really putting the human face forward of people experiencing homelessness,” Morrissey said.

“We couldn’t be more grateful for people like those at Hirschfeld Kraemer and Xantrion, who see that people have mistakenly blamed those experiencing the problem of homelessness as the ones who have created it.”