MILWAUKEE — In the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has shined a light on the already existing challenges society has faced when it comes to racial disparities, and especially the digital divide.
"It became so apparent what the disparities are, between people in different socioeconomic classes and in many cases divisions along racial lines," said Joan Johnson, city librarian for Milwaukee Public Library.
After partnering with the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee and the Milwaukee County Court, the library came up with the plan to currently allow people who are facing evictions and don't have access to technology, to use their computers instead to attend virtual court hearings.
"We have dedicated spaces in each one of those buildings where there is a small study room or a small conference room with the equipment set up," said Johnson. "The person will come in and show the staff their summons and then they get access to the space."
Executive Director for the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, Colleen Foley, says although the current federal eviction moratorium is in place until March 31 of this year - unless residents meet certain qualifications - they're still at risk for being evicted.
"There are qualifying conditions and the fact remains a lot of people still don't seem to know about it. You have to qualify under the declaration that you've had a substantial loss of income due to COVID or you've had a medical condition that impeded your ability to pay rent," said Foley.
To put the number of evictions that have been filed within the Milwaukee Circuit Court into context: more than 13,682 were filed in 2019 and in 2020 a total of 9,049 evictions were filed. Already in 2021, a total of 590 evictions were filed in January, 579 were filed in February, and as of the 12th of March, 242 evictions have already been filed. This is why officials say it's critical that they provide internet access to those who need it most - in order to give them a fighting chance.
"The clock is ticking, we're at March 19 and we are concerned," said Foley.
"We realize that the library has to be playing a bigger role in helping to level the playing field," said Johnson.
The Zoom locations will be offered at four of the Milwaukee public library locations at Atkinson, Center Street - M.L.K, and Mitchell Street. And if all goes well, the library hopes to expand these services to people so they can have access to telehealth and other court hearings.