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Digital TV Bypassing Skid Row

New America Media, News report, Leslie Casimir Posted: Mar 16, 2009

Editors Note: The federal government may have delayed the massive digital television conversion to June 12, but thousands of poor residents say they may still be left in the dark, NAMs Leslie Casimir reports.

SAN FRANCISCO As far as comforts go at the Alder Hotel, where 117 extremely poor men and women call home, watching television pretty much tops everybodys list. It serves as a window to a world that is not their own.

One of the hundreds of old and storied single-room residential hotels still operating in this city, the Alder boasts no kitchens, forcing all who live here to scramble for cheap prepared meals on the outside, mostly fast food. Tenants share bathrooms located in the hallway, incurring long waits for showers and other urgent matters. A bed-bug infestation currently has people reeling.

Having access to a television kind of makes it all bearable to live here, explained Mark Williams, a resident and tenant organizer at the Alder. Its a big deal.

Come June 12, even the luxury of watching free television may be taken away from them. In three months, old TV sets that receive signals through the air with the aid of rabbit ear or roof antennas will stop working.

Surprisingly, that date is welcoming news to Alder residents. The digital TV transition was supposed to happen on Feb. 17, but a federal delay has granted these needy residents a little borrowed time.

A crush of complaints prompted Congress to delay the massive switch when it realized that many of the estimated 20 million U.S. households mostly low-income and seniors were not ready for the analog-to-digital TV transition. The federally mandated switch will free up the airwaves for emergency services and wireless technology.

The switch requires people to install digital converter boxes to their old television sets. To offset the costs to the public, the government instituted a $40 coupon program -- two vouchers for each U.S. household. But the coupon system was riddled with problems. Last year, officials ran out of them. In addition, people who earlier had received the cards couldnt redeem the coupons because they had expired.

Although some federal stimulus package money has been pumped into the digital TV switch, reviving the coupon program, it still doesnt help tenants at the Alder or the estimated 20,000 other San Franciscans who live in single room occupany hotels, more commonly known as SROs.

The federal program only allows for coupons to be sent to addresses defined as existing households designated by the U.S. Postal Service, excluding buildings that dont provide individual locked mailboxes to its residents. However, postal officials do not recognize SROs as households, but as a place of business.

Its just really unfair that the government is leaving people behind like this, said Eldon Brown, a 41-year-old disabled man who rents a room at the All Star Hotel in the Mission District for $500 a month. After he pays the rent, he has $300 left from his Supplemental Security Income. That goes towards food, transportation and laundry, so theres no extra money to buy a $55 converter box, he said.

We really need the help, Brown said.

Front desk clerks usually distribute the mail to SRO residents, a system that tenants say is rife with abuse. Over the years, many residents and tenant advocates have complained about the inexplicable losses of paychecks, health insurance cards, and other important documents.

Last month, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herreras staff collected testimonials from many SRO tenants. Herrera is preparing legal action against the postal service, his office has announced.

U.S. postal officials do not recognize a 2006 city ordinance requiring SROs to install locked mailboxes so that postal carriers only can handle the mail for each resident.

We support the idea of mailboxes being installed for each of the residents, but it is up to the hotel owner or management to distribute that mail into the mailbox, said James Wigdel, the spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service in San Francisco. We make one drop delivery to hotels.

The city attorney doesnt see it that way.

The fact that they live in a building that is called hotel does not mean that theyre not permanent tenants, said Matt Dorsey, Herreras spokesman. As much as it has been an inconvenience for them to not qualify for the digital television converter box coupons, people are losing their medical care, theyre being evicted from their homes because they cant receive their checks.

While the officials continue to debate the merits of the mailbox ordinance, residents like Michael Morgan, 60, said come June, he does not want to be without television.

Formerly homeless, Morgan said television is his lifeline.

I want to know whats going on in the world, Morgan said. I have that right. We pay rent here, we should feel comfortable here.

Jeff Buckley, director of the Central City SRO Collaborative, has amassed a list of more than 85 SRO tenants in the city in need of a donated digital TV converter box coupon. The tenant advocacy group is soliciting people who can qualify for the coupon to donate their unused coupon.

What a boondoggle, said Buckley, whose organization petitioned House Speaker Nancy Pelosis office about the residents plight. A Pelosi spokesman said the speaker contacted the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is administering the coupon program, but a public commenting period to change the coupon issuance rules had long expired.

Brown is one of the SRO tenants on Buckleys waiting list. He doesnt think hell get a coupon in time.

Ill probably have to get one of these from off the streets, he said. Im sure somebody will be selling them for like $10 in a couple of months.

To donate your unclaimed digital TV converter coupons, send them to Jeff Buckley, director of the Central City SRO Collaborative at 126 Hyde St., San Francisco, CA, 94102.

Leslie Casimir can be reached at lcasimir@newameriamedia.org

Related Articles:

Digital TV Assistance Day for Asian Elders

Seattle Ethnic Media Say Confusion About Digital TV Transition Persists

Texans Are Pushed to Get Government-Sponsored Coupons for TV

Detroit Ethnic Media Prepare for Digital Transition

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