For Vakil Kuner, the work involved in setting up and tearing down a secure wireless network to support more than two dozen government agencies and private organisations for a single day is well worth it.

Kuner, IT director for San Francisco's Department of Human Services (DHS), leads a team of technology pros that lays the foundation for the city and county to help the homeless. "We're reaching people that otherwise can't be reached," he says.

San Francisco is one of several US cities, including Chicago and New York, using wireless and other network technologies to empower homeless and low-income people and link them to critical services.

In San Francisco, the DHS invites the homeless to a bimonthly, one-day event it calls Project Homeless Connect. The DHS sets up a wireless LAN (WLAN) at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, then provides representatives from about 30 government agencies and private organisations with VPN connectivity to its departmental applications and databases. The 1,000 or so homeless who attend the event get real-time access to services such as low-cost housing, substance abuse and mental health counseling, legal aid and food stamps.

A wireless network with no budget
The DHS pulls together Project Homeless Connect on a shoestring. "We have no budget due to the fiscal environment," Kuner says.

While his team now has a cookie-cutter approach to setting up the event, which launched in October 2004, it must borrow a host of technology from assorted city and county agencies. "We do laptop roundups before each event," he says.

The WLAN, which the team sets up and takes down within 48 hours, comprises IBM and HP laptops equipped with wireless cards, Linksys wireless routers and HP printers. Cisco gear powers the IP Security VPN.

"There are constant technical challenges, but it's all worth it," Kuner says.

Wiring Chicago rooftops
In Chicago, an organization called Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) is using wireless connections to provide Internet access to families in low-income neighborhoods. Through the project, called Wireless Community Network, CNT is creating a rooftop network of wireless repeater nodes for more than 800 households in four neighborhoods.

"The Wireless Community Network is a tool to get people better information, especially people who don't have access to advanced telecommunications," says Nicole Friedman, CNT project manager. "Our users can't afford to pay for DSL or cable modem service, and some have never had contact with a computer."

Using money from a patchwork quilt of public and private programs, the CNT has connected about 400 households since receiving its first project funding in late 2003. It gathers retired computers from corporations and individuals to distribute to residents who don't have their own PCs.

The rooftop network, powered by Metrix Communications, comprises WLAN nodes with antennas, routers and radios. Buildings hooking into the nodes put up a hodgepodge of wireless access points, and users can access the network via their WLAN cards.

Residents are using their Internet connectivity for advanced online coursework and grocery shopping, and to access medical benefit information. Other uses include filling out job applications online, finding job training and attending virtual English as a Second Language courses, Friedman says.

"Our goal is to help people stand on their own," she says.

A wireless world of hope
In New York, Mount Hope Housing has the same goal for the 40,000 residents living within its more than 30 properties in the Bronx. Mount Hope Housing is setting up a network of wireless access points to offer residents access to life-altering resources via low-cost Internet access, says Naoki Fujita, communications associate at Mount Hope Housing.

"Mount Hope is one of the poorest communities in the Bronx. To mainstream [residents] into the national economy today, we need to give them an e-mail address and Internet service," he says.

Mount Hope is building the network, announced in late 2004, in partnership with Verizon Avenue and the nonprofit One Economy. For the network, Mount Hope feeds several T-1s into its neighborhoods and then uses proprietary 5.3GHz wireless gear to transport that signal from building to building. In each building, residents hook into an Ethernet backbone. "We provide tenants with a low-cost alternative for their Internet connection," Fujita says.

Once Mount Hope completes the network, which it plans to do in March or April, it will work to get all tenants computers and VoIP services. "But first we need to focus on building the basic infrastructure," he says.

Tenants who already have computers can access the Internet and the Mount Hope Web site and The Beehive, both of which feature information on health services, education and other opportunities available to low-income families. "The primary goal of this network is to get a connection to residents where there was none before - a lot of the services were not available to them," he says.

Eventually, Fujita hopes to offer computer-literacy classes for adults in the community and to help the youth become IT administrators and get Microsoft certified.