In San Francisco’s District 8, a public library has been shutting down Wi-Fi outside business hours for nearly a year. The measure, quietly implemented in mid-2022, was made at the request of neighbors and the office of city supervisor Rafael Mandelman. It’s an attempt to keep city dwellers who are currently unhoused away from the area by locking down access to one of the library’s most valuable public services. 

A local activist known as HDizz revealed details behind the move last month, tweeting public records of a July 2022 email exchange between local residents and the city supervisor’s office. In the emails, residents complained about open drug use and sidewalks blocked by residents who are unhoused. One relayed a secondhand story about a library worker who had been followed to her car. And by way of response, they demanded the library limit the hours Wi-Fi was available. “Why are the vagrants and drug addicts so attracted to the library?” one person asked rhetorically. “It’s the free 24/7 wi-fi.” 

San Francisco’s libraries have been historically progressive when it comes to providing resources to people who are unhoused, even hiring specialists to offer assistance. But on August 1st, reports San Francisco publication Mission Local, city librarian Michael Lambert met with Mandelman’s office to discuss the issue. The next day, District 8’s Eureka Valley/Harvey Milk Memorial branch began turning its Wi-Fi off after hours — a policy that San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) spokesperson Jaime Wong told The Verge via email remains in place today. 

Libraries are one of the most visible options for bridging the digital divide — a term for the gulf in internet access between disadvantaged communities and more financially secure ones. The American Library Association notes that they provide an “important opportunity to change lives” for underserved communities. But that has also put them in the middle of difficult debates over how to handle homelessness.

“Free wifi is his only lifeline to me [or] for that matter any services for crisis or whatever else.”

In the initial months after the decision, the library apparently received no complaints. But in March, a little over seven months following the change, it got a request to reverse the policy. “I’m worried about my friend,” the email reads, “whom I am trying to get into long term residential treatment.” San Francisco has shelters, but the requester said their friend had trouble communicating with the staff and has a hard time being around people who used drugs, among other issues. Because this friend has no regular cell service, “free wifi is his only lifeline to me [or] for that matter any services for crisis or whatever else.” 

The resident said some of the neighborhood’s residents “do not understand what they do to us poor folks nor the homeless by some of the things they do here.”

Employees at the library received the request, but Lambert wrote that he was “less inclined for us to focus on the Wi-Fi after hours request.” He rejected a social services supervisor’s offer to gather information about other sources of free Wi-Fi — asking them to simply provide leads on mental health or suicide prevention.

Some local residents scoffed at the value of 24/7 online access. “[We] have been presented with NO EVIDENCE that it does anything [to] ‘bridge the digital divide’ as the library claims,” said one email.

At the same time, however, it’s difficult to establish that the limits have reduced crime or “nuisance” in the neighborhood. In 2017, then-District 8 supervisor Jeff Sheehy asked the library to study whether turning off the Wi-Fi would curb crime, and the library said in its report that there wasn’t enough data to draw meaningful conclusions. It even took a broader look in 2021 after a District 8 resident asked it to and still struggled to find a link.

Legislative aide Jackie Thornhill told The Verge in an email that “obviously the presence or lack of all night wifi isn’t going to make a huge difference on its own,” but she believes it’s one of many reasons the library is so attractive to criminal activity. Thornhill also sent a spreadsheet of 911 calls that she says shows crime has been down for the last nine months.

District 8 has tried other approaches to help. A one-on-one outreach program for people experiencing houselessness was championed by Mandelman and seems to be having some success, while he and the rest of the San Francisco board of supervisors issued a call in early May for the city to fund 2,000 new shelter beds and temporary housing placements. 

Wong told The Verge via email that Eureka Valley is the only branch in the city that turns off its Wi-Fi after hours and that the SFPL has no official policy to leave Wi-Fi on at night. But she also said that “incidents such as vandalism and other criminal behavior at the Eureka Valley Branch Library remain low and consistent with previous years.” 

HDizz started an email campaign in May to convince the library to turn the Wi-Fi back on. Within two days, over 50 current and former residents had participated. Most use HDizz’s template, but one resident — who said they once worked in data analysis — said the link between Wi-Fi and crime “would be laughed out of the first week of a Statistics 001 class.” Another, from a former resident who says they now sit on the Contra Costa County Library Commission, argues that “shutting [off] WiFi for those who need it isn’t going to disappear homelessness, let alone help people find resources.” 

“These kinds of efforts, like turning off the Wi-Fi, just exacerbate homelessness”

In a phone interview with The Verge, HDizz called the decision to limit Wi-Fi part of a broader campaign of hostility and insufficient support for individuals without housing in San Francisco. On Twitter, she points to coordinated efforts to clear encampments, which has sparked an ongoing lawsuit against the city

So far, it’s not clear that other libraries will follow Eureka Valley’s lead. But San Francisco is at the epicenter of a broader fight over issues like homelessness in the US — including among Silicon Valley tech moguls who have blamed progressive policies and residents who are houseless for violence, even when they’re later proven wrong.

On whether shutting off nighttime Wi-Fi would solve anything, Jennifer Friedenbach of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness told The Verge in a phone interview that “folks are not out there on the streets by choice. They’re destitute and don’t have other options. These kinds of efforts, like turning off the Wi-Fi, just exacerbate homelessness and have the opposite effect. Putting that energy into fighting for housing for unhoused neighbors would be a lot more effective.”

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