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Charly Haley and Erik Burgess, Published January 24 2013

Many say cellphone a basic necessity for the homeless

MOORHEAD – Like most people these days, Todd Rau needs his cellphone. “I think a cellphone is a basic necessity for everyone,” he said.

Does it matter that Rau is lacking other basic necessities? The 47-year-old is staying at Churches United for the Homeless in Moorhead.

“There are folks who will think it’s a horrible extravagance for homeless people to have a cellphone,” said John Roberts, director of shelter operations at Churches United, “but in the big scheme of things, it’s an inexpensive necessity. It’s a tool for people to use.

“You may not be able to afford $600 per month for rent, but you can afford a $45 phone card,” Roberts said.

In fact, the tool is considered so vital that some national cellphone providers are doling out free phones to those with low income. A representative from Life Wireless, one such company that works in conjunction with a federal subsidy program, was in Moorhead earlier this month and could return in the near future.

Despite the recent visit from Life Wireless, Roberts said many of his shelter’s residents use pay-as-you-go phones, and the reasons to have a personal cellphone are varied.

Many residents, like Rau, use the phones for communicating with potential employers.

People do have the option of giving employers the shelter’s phone number, but shelter directors across the metro agree: It’s inconvenient and can be embarrassing in a job search.

“If you list a homeless shelter phone number as your primary contact info, a lot of employers just don’t take that seriously or they may look the other way just because of that,” said Rob Swiers, assistant director at the New Life Center in Fargo. Cellphones are also an important tool that homeless people use to contact potential landlords when looking for permanent housing, Roberts said.

Malcolm Evans, 50, who is staying at Churches United, said he also uses his phone to arrange medical appointments.

In addition to helping homeless people find jobs and housing, cellphones are – like with everyone – their way of staying in touch with family and friends.

“It’s an important way to connect for that social support,” said Sonja Ellner, director of the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality in Moorhead.

A 2012 study released by the American Sociological Association shows more homeless people using phones to access social media websites, where they can keep in contact with family and friends.

Roberts said people also use the Churches United computer lab and the computers at public libraries to access social media.

Debra Evans, who is staying at Churches United with her husband, said her parents “would be frantic” if they weren’t able to check on her. But the main reason Evans, 47, has her own cellphone is for security reasons.

“If I need help, or if I see an accident, I can call 911, for either myself or someone else,” she said. The security of a cellphone is especially important for homeless people who may have to sleep outside, alone at night, Evans said.

“I’ve slept outdoors,” she said. “So for me, (having a cellphone) is a comfort and a security.”

Roberts and Ellner say most of the people they see in shelters own cellphones.

Some of those phones may come with the assistance of things like the federal Lifeline Assistance Program.

The Lifeline program was created in 1985 to help make telephone services affordable to those with low income. It’s overseen by the Federal Communications Commission, and is funded by a surcharge on phone bills known as the Universal Service Fund.

When Life Wireless representatives were in Moorhead earlier this month, they had great success, said Becki Johnson, a self-sufficiency advocate at Lakes and Prairies.

“We had people lined up a good half-hour or more beforehand,” she said, adding that the company could be back in the near future to do another phone distribution.

During the phone distribution, space was donated to Life Wireless by Lakes and Prairies Community Action Partnership and the Dorothy Day House. Those who wanted a phone had to be a Minnesota resident and provide a photo ID. Cellphones distributed via the Lifeline program include voicemail, text messaging, three-way calling and caller ID.

Life Wireless phones offer 250 free minutes per month, said Paul Donsky, a spokesman for Life Wireless.

To apply for a free phone, one’s income must be at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty line, according to documents distributed by Life Wireless. For a four-person household in Minnesota and North Dakota, that is about $31,100 annually.

If the household income is more than that, the family can still apply for a phone if they use one of the following programs: food stamps, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, Minnesota Family Investment Program, Section 8 federal housing assistance, national free school lunch program, and a few others.

Most people with phones through Life Wireless are not actually homeless but are living in poverty, Donsky said.

The Lifeline program operates in Minnesota, eight other states and Puerto Rico. North Dakota is not among them.

“Just about everyone we serve here meets those (low income) qualifications,” said Jan Eliassen, director of the Gladys Ray Shelter in Fargo. “I think that nobody’s been able to take it on and try to make it happen and commit the time to it that it must take to get it here.”

Local efforts to start a similar cellphone subsidy program or some kind of “community voicemail” in Fargo have not been successful, she said. While residents wouldn’t get their own phone under community voicemail, it would allow the shelter to give local numbers to residents and each would have their own voice mailbox connected to that number, Eliassen said.

She said finding the money and the time to set up such a program has been tough.

“We do have a guest line at the shelter that just has a regular answering machine that just says, ‘Hey, no one can come to the phone right now,’ but people can still be identified (as homeless),” she said.

The federal program has received some questioning from conservative critics, but Eliassen said that’s not the reason it hasn’t been started up in North Dakota.

Eliassen and Roberts agree: The benefits of cellphones help improve homeless people’s lives overall.

“The connections they’re able to make with family, friends, housing and potential employers helps their quality of life,” Roberts said.

Fargo-Moorhead’s homeless population has increased dramatically in the past year, according to the F-M Coalition for Homeless Persons.


Readers can reach Forum reporters Charly Haley at (701) 235-7311 and

Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518


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