Saturday, January 24, 2009

Don’t get Me Started: Where do the Homeless charge their; Cell Phones, iPods and Laptops?

Where do the Homeless charge their; Cell Phones, iPods and Laptops?

The fist thing that comes to mind is.... if you can afford a: Cell Phone, a iPod or a Laptop why can't you afford housing? Simple, Laptops and iPods are a one time expenses and a pretty small expense these days. iPods can be had for under $300, and a ok laptop for under $1000...where $600 a month for rent, each and every month, not always possible.....

back to the topic at hand... when you are homeless where do you charge the batteries for your electronics? There are a couple of options. Cafe's and Coffee Shops are a likely place, where you can get your cup or coffee or tea for under $2, find an outlet and plug in. If you live in a college town like I do, there are plenty of coffee shops that have free Wi Fi and there for not only can you charge your laptop, you can surf the web as well.

The easier option for a lot of people, and the one that inspired this post, is the public library. I happen to work in one and I get to deal with the issues that surround the issue of the public having access to power outlets. First I have to say that the building that I work in, and indeed many of the library buildings out there, were not designed with the idea that the public would need access to outlets, after all this is a library. However, as the services provided by our library's have evolved the need for access to electric outlets have grown, not only for the public but for the institution.

Just think back to the 1950s when the last major burst of infrastructure was built in the country. The electrical needs of a library was pretty simple: Lights and maybe record players (or radios), the electric typewriter, the odd fan, and of course the Vacuum cleaner for cleaning after hours. As time progressed new technologies entered the library world, copy machines, tape decks, electric clocks, CD players, computers, scanners, self check outs, Wi Fi, video games, DVD players, and on and on and on….

The problem of course is that buildings were not designed to accommodate these things. I have seen this before, when I was working in dorms at a major university that were built in the 1950s. We would continue to have problems with circuit breakers popping, because the power grid in the buildings were not build to accommodate the load. Like the library, the dorms were build to accommodate a lamp, a fan, and maybe a radio or record player…. And for the unthinkablely well off…. A TV. By the time that I entered college in the early 90’s the typical dorm room would have: lamps, stereos, computers, a mini fridge, a TV, a microwave…. You get the point.

Back to the library, the first issue with public access to outlets is placement. In many places the outlets were placed in out of the way sections of the wall so that cleaning equipment could easily be plugged in, places that were clear of tables and chairs, and often right on the walk way. The problem has become that the public has started using these outlets and stretching their power cords across the walk ways. This is an issue for two main reasons. First is it’s a trip hazard for those who are attempting to use the walk way. I have personally seen several people almost trip and one person (who had been asked to move their cord) start to trip because of the issue.

The second issue is that power cords stretched across walkways violate the Americans with Disabilities act[1]. Persons with ambulatory difficulties are not able to traverse these cords, wheelchairs can be impeded and obviously persons with vision impairments are not always going to see them.

The third issue that comes into play with the question of public access to power outlets is monitoring of electronics while they are being charged. In places where outlets are often times there are not enough to fulfill demand, and because charging takes time, often several electronics are plugged in at the same time. In places where there are not multiple open outlets this means that one or more of the items can’t always be monitored. This leaves these items open to theft. Now I see plenty of college kids and clueless adults who leave their stuff unattended, but the homeless are more vulnerable to theft than other for the simple reason that they tend to prey on each other, they tend to distrust police, and because of their economic situation the likelihood that they have insurance or replacement protection on electronics is lessened, and the likely hood that they have the money to replace items is lessened.

The last issue is that of energy cost. The fact that public accommodations are being used, and that energy is being used by people who are not paying for it, might seem small when you think of a guy down on his luck just charging a cheep pay as you go cell phone, or a old lap top left over from a former life, but when you realize that there are maybe hundreds of electronic items being charged in the library across the span of a week, and for hours and hours the economic reality to the institution and the cost starts to build. We are living in a time when the cost of energy is rising, the funding for public works is constricting and there is concern about the overall carbon foot print of our life style, when you think about the total number of public dollars across the country, year by year, that goes into paying for this electricity, you start to see the impact on these institutions.

Now, I am not in any way saying that we should start charging money for providing electrical outlets for public access, but there has to be a point where the cost of that service has to be addressed and dealt with.

Now, in my old life as a working slave for a major international retailer, when I brought issues to one of the bosses, the question I would get posed to me first was “what do you want me to do about this?”, in this case the question would be, what are the solutions to this issue and what can be done to create a win-win for all concerned? As with that job, I have learned to come with a couple of ideas that address this issue.

1) Green powered public charging stations. Simply put, there has to be a model out there for some brave venture capital person to start building charging stations that can be bought for or by public institutions, NGOs, or others that will provide access to charging at low or no cost that isn’t dependent on coal, oil, or other polluting energy sources. These stations could be based on a combination of wind, solar, hydroelectric or even pedal power. They would act like a huge power strip where people could plug in and charge for a length of time.

2) I recall hearing a radio news story on NPR a year or two back about someone who had built and was operations cart that acted as a charging station for portable electronics in I think it was New York City. The charge to plug in was pretty minimal, and they were able to make a living. It struck me as being kind of like the modern version of hotdog cart vendor. That model could do a couple of things; first and foremost provide new jobs, in not only the retail aspect of the vending cart, but also in the manufacture and repair of such carts.

3) Lastly, the most out there Idea that I have, but it seems like a simple one… because of the obesity issues in the USA (and is now extending around the world) more and more people have turned to working out and exercise classes to keep fit and provide exercise. Spinning (stationary bicycle riding) classes have been a rage for a while, and I hate to think of all that exertion and spinning going to waste. Imagine if all of those bikes were hooked up to a generator and the electricity generated were put back into the grid? In many places if you put electricity back into the grid the power company has to pay you for it. What if these classes would be lower in cost or even free if the energy generated and the sale of that electricity to the power company was enough to cover the cost of running the fitness club? Maybe this power could also be donated to cover the cost of running a public charging station, or maybe the school systems, the government (city, county, state, federal) buildings and the local libraries (just to bring us back to what we started talking about). Maybe this model would also give more people more of a reason to take spinning classes, you get your work out, you don’t have to pay for it, and it might lower your taxes or make them go further because they aren’t being used to pay for as much power…. Yes it’s a out there and wacky idea I know..

So there you have it, I think I have exausted my thoughts on the subject for the moment… thoughts, questions, spare change…. Oh… don’t get me started

[1] which was signed into Law by Bush Sr. so if any of you are ever challenged to come up with something good that a Republican president has done in modern times, here is your answer

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