For Homeless, Mobiles Are a Lifeline

Jesse Call
www.street-papers.org
The Contributor – USA

His daughter is in the hospital and is about to die. Her blood work shows she has diabetes but does not know it. He has finally landed a job if he can start later today. She might get a job if she can interview tomorrow morning. The river’s about to flood his campsite. She just got assaulted and robbed and needs help.

These are circumstances that the homelessness can face each day, and without access to a mobile phone, such individuals may not get the information or help they need in time. Health care providers, career counselors and those living on the streets say that having access to a mobile phone is essential for the homeless.

Federal and state governments have also long recognized mobile phone access as a need for those experiencing homelessness and poverty. Governments have teamed up with major cell phone service providers to offer free or low-cost cell phones to people with low incomes under the Lifeline Assistance Program. The Universal Service Fee that cell phone subscribers pay on their monthly bills covers the costs of the program, which was set up under a 1996 federal law. To qualify for a free mobile phone with 250 free minutes and 250 free SMS text messages, an applicant needs to show that his or her income falls below 35 percent above the federal poverty guidelines or that he or she is receiving other federal benefits such as SSI or food stamps.

“People shouldn’t have to face the decision to pay for phone service or pay for food,” said Jack Pflanz, spokesperson for Assurance Wireless, one of the providers of the Lifeline Assistance Program in Tennessee. “In today’s society, I think it is essential that someone experiencing homelessness has access to phone service.”

Tool for employment

Critics of the homeless contend that an individual should be doing everything they legally can to bring in more income in order to ‘get back on their feet.’ For many, this means securing additional employment, a task that is particularly challenging in its own right but which can be further complicated by the lack of regular access to a phone.

Unfortunately, most potential employers are not particularly understanding about the life circumstances of homeless people. Regardless of their housing status, these employers expect employees or potential employees to be available on short-term notice to complete interviews or show up for work. Most employers also expect employees to have his or her own phone number where he or she can be reached and can receive a message, according to local career trainers and counselors.

“In today’s job market a job seeker must have an active email address and a reachable phone number,” said Connie Humphreys, career development manager of Davidson County at the Nashville Career Advancement Center. “It is not enough to provide this information on a résumé. The job seeker has to regularly check their email and phone for messages and respond immediately. If an employer is not able to reach the applicant or the applicant does not respond quickly to the employer’s call to set up an interview, the employer may assume that the person does not really want a job with their company.”

This sentiment is echoed by the state-operated Tennessee Career Centers. “The easier you’re accessible, the better likelihood you have for getting a job interview,” said RJ Sherr, area manager for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. He adds that being able to be reached at a moment’s notice for an interview should always be a prospective employee’s goal. Too often, however, people without regular phone access call back too late, and find out the position has been filled or they are no longer accepting interviews.

“People shouldn’t have to face the decision to pay for phone service or pay for food … In today’s society, it is essential that someone experiencing homelessness has access to phone service.”

This is exactly why Debra Hyden, who currently homeless in Nashville, says she has a Lifeline Assistance Program phone. “For me, it’s to find a job,” she said while waiting for a meal from a local ministry. She says that the government-provided phones are the ones she sees most on the street and she expects most others also have them mainly to secure employment.

Also waiting for a meal at the local ministry is a woman who recently graduated from Vanderbilt University but now finds herself homeless because she defaulted on her student loans. She says she does not currently have a cell phone but wants to know more about the Lifeline Assistance Program after overhearing Hyden talking about it. She agrees that having a cell phone would be helpful to her in finding a job and feeling more secure.

Robert A., a veteran of the Marine Corps and vendor of Nashville’s street paper The Contributor who is currently living out of his truck, says that he recently applied at a local Social Security office to get a Lifeline phone. “I’m trying to get a job,” he explained, adding that the process for obtaining the phone is a lot of work in itself, which has kept him from having time to sell the paper and earn an income. Nevertheless, he says, having a phone will be worth the effort.

Accessing health care

Yet another reason that having access to a mobile phone can be essential to someone experiencing homelessness is that a phone enables more immediate access to medical care.

“Phone service is important for maintaining health,” Pflanz at Assurance Wireless said. “Customers need to be in contact with doctors, clinics and drug stores to be able to get their prescriptions,” he said.

The staff at United Neighborhood Health Services (UNHS), a local healthcare service provider that provides healthcare to those without insurance, agrees.

“A great number of our patients suffer from multiple chronic conditions and they are often serious, so it’s important for us to be in contact with them,” said Bill Friskics-Warren, who coordinates services for people experiencing homelessness at UNHS. “Fortunately, a lot of folks have the government-issued Assurance phones and a lot of folks have Cricket phones,” he said, referring to the inexpensive prepaid cell phones that do not require service contracts, which he says some of his clients use. Cricket is one of many companies offering such service.

Reaching clients quickly can be essential in some circumstances, Friskics-Warren says, especially when laboratory work comes back and shows that a client has a condition that requires immediate treatment. “They may need serious and immediate attention and if we can’t find someone we can’t manage their condition,” he explained.

Another circumstance that frequently arises at UNHS is when his organization is trying to help someone obtain the medication they need for free. “Medications of theirs come in that we’ve arranged for them to receive directly from the manufacturer through patient assistance programs,” he said. “Being able to reach folks is essential.”

Create a safety net

While reaching clients for health care concerns is important, Friskics-Warren at UNHS says that another important need for people experiencing homelessness is to be able to be reached by those who care about them.

“Family members will purchase cell phones and put some minutes on them so they can know that they are safe and OK during their time on the streets,” Friskics-Warren said.

“It’s all about relationships for people that live in poverty. That’s how they survive,” added Debbie Grant, E & T development coordinator at Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee, who also serves as chairwoman of the Nashville Coalition for the Homeless. “So their cell phone may be to call a best friend or family member because that’s going to be the person that can come and help them.”

While she believes that access to a cell phone helps Goodwill’s clients get jobs, she also says the access to support from others that a phone provides is key.

“Just having a viable means of communication is more important,” she said.

Having a cell phone also helps keep families in touch, particularly for single parents who do not get to see their children all the time. Charlie Edward Keyes, who is also homelessness in Nashville, says he uses his phone to speak with his kids in Louisiana.

Pflanz at Assurance Wireless also tells the story of a man who became homeless after being laid off during the auto industry meltdown and how he used his phone to secure new employment and stay in touch and arrange meetings with his kids under a shared custody agreement.

Access to a mobile phone is also good for reaching out during emergencies.

“People might see me holding a lot of ones and mistake me for having a lot of money,” Robert A. said. “What if they decided to rob me?”

Web and email access

Having a government-issued or cheap prepaid cell phone is one thing for critics, but often it’s the quality of the phone that seems to bother them the most.

On Twitter, “Alex Ferrari” (@amferrari1), from Nashville, wrote: “At a red light on my way home a guy selling the contributor (paper homeless people sell in Nashville) pulls out a iPhone and makes a call…”

Similarly, “Annelise Walley” (@AnneliseWalley) wrote: “I was about to give this homeless guy on the street some money. Then I saw him pull his iPhone out of his sock. #Nashville.”

One Twitter user took it a step further. “Mark Hobson” (@matchstickmgmt), also from Nashville, wrote: “If you have an iPhone, you shouldn’t be allowed to sell the contributor. #fact.”

However, as more and more employers are requiring immediate Internet and email access, having a smartphone is becoming more than a luxury for those on the street.

“One of the reasons a cell phone is important is so an employer can get back in touch with a person,” Grant at Goodwill said. “However, more and more employers are using the computer and job applications that require an email address.”

Most free or prepaid phones have very limited web capabilities, making checking email and accessing online applications difficult or impossible. Thus, people without Internet access on their phones have to resort to using public computers like those at the library or outreach organizations, which often limit access to traditional work hours, as well as the amount of time one can spend at a computer before it’s the next person’s turn.

Humphreys at NCAC echoes the need for people seeking employment to be able to check and respond to emails throughout the day.

“If the jobseeker doesn’t respond quickly to an interview invitation, they may not respond to the calls and messages from customers, which will result in poor customer service,” she said about employer expectations.

Thus, jobseekers that are able to purchase a smartphone may be making an investment that will-with time, and perhaps a new job-pay off.

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