Cell phones for the homeless: Helping them connect with jobs, homes


Maybe nothing says times have changed as dramatically as a program in St. Paul that a few weeks ago began distributing cell phones to homeless persons. 

The six-month pilot is part of an effort to get people in transition back into jobs and homes faster.

“The idea is,” Marcy Shapiro says, “if an employer calls that number, they can answer. If a landlord calls their number, they can answer. If they need a health care provider, they can talk to them, and also that their family and friends can talk to them.’

Without a telephone, the unemployed and homeless are even further out of the mainstream, a truism recognized back in 1994 when Twin Cities Community Voice Mail, the organization Shapiro now heads, was founded. The group set up free voice mail accounts for the homeless to receive voice messages. But that means they’d have to find a phone to use to call that voice mail account, a feat becoming increasingly difficult with the disappearance of most public telephones following the rise of cell phones.

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Still, last year, working with 350 social service agencies, Twin Cities Community Voice Mail provided vital phone connections to 5,000 people, mostly in the metro area but including almost 5 percent in Greater Minnesota. Calls handled through the system figure at about 3,000 a day.

Over the past several years – considering the spread and practicality of cell phones – (66 percent of adult Americans in 2004 had cell phones, according to Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, and those numbers only grow), Shapiro and her organization began to consider putting cell phones into their clients’ hands.

Funded with an $11,750 grant from the St. Paul Foundation, the phone trial will cover 30 to 40 phones, to be handed out by three partner agencies: the Dorothy Day Center, the St. Paul YWCA, and Face to Face Safe Zone in connection with the federally funded Rapid Re-housing program.

So far 10 individuals or families have received a phone and a calling card. The agency will pay for phone service for six months, after which the client must take on payments.

Some problems

Already there have been kinks in the system. Cell phone service-provider Virgin Mobile, changed its rates a week into the program, as such providers often do, Shapiro said. That means some clients have 300 daytime minutes a month with 1,000 on nights or weekends with the non-profit paying $30 a month. The new plan offers 300 anytime minutes with unlimited texting for $25 a month. When users hit their max, their phones are basically dead, though they still are able to connect to emergency 911.

Those fees contrast with the voice mail system which costs an average of $8 per person per month.

The cell phone lifelines are being tried in Washington, D.C., as well where a formerly homeless man told the reporter: “‘Having a phone isn’t even a privilege anymore – it’s a necessity,’ said Rommel McBride, 50, who spent about six years on the streets before recently being placed in a city housing program. He has had a mobile phone for a year. ‘A cell phone is the only way you can call to keep up with your food stamps, your housing application, your job. When you’re living in a shelter or sleeping on the streets, it’s your last line of communication with the world.'”

Shapiro says whether the program continues depends on multiple factors, including continued funding. Her group will survey cell-phone users to determine use and usefulness of the phones and share the report with the state’s Public Utilities Commission to be considered in connection with a Federal Communications Commission ruling in 1985 establishing Lifeline and Link-Up phone services to low-income households.

Anecdotal reports demonstrate the usefulness of the mobile phones. One social service provider told Shapiro about a client with a seizure disorder who is comforted to have immediate access to a phone.