Tech Alliance Keeps Homeless Connected through Mobile4All

Carefully, to avoid scratching the smooth rubber surface, Sylvia Martin pulls her black Google Nexus 5 out of the Ziploc sandwich bag she uses in place of a case.

“Watch this,” she says, setting up a wireless connection then putting her mouth to the mic. “OK, Google: Where’s the nearest Starbucks?”

The sleek black Android buzzes and beeps and pops up a map with directions to the café chain. Martin looks up and smiles. “Let’s try another. OK, Google: Chase bank.”

The phone buzzes and beeps and pinpoints the nearest branch. “Isn’t that neat?” she asks. “I use this all the time. I’ll never get lost again.”

After three months, the novelty hasn’t worn off. As a 59-year-old who’s been homeless on and off since she was 16 after running away from an abusive family, Martin’s phone has become indispensable, a way to structure her chaotic life.

Aside from providing a contact number to jot down on job applications, she uses it to stay in touch with her doctor, therapist, mentor and part-time employer.

When she’s holed up in her publicly subsidized micro-unit—an unfurnished closet-sized space in Mountain View, shelter for the time being—she uses it to read her favorite e-books about herbal healing, yoga and urban foraging.

“Seems like a small thing, to watch a TV show, but it gets you up to speed with the rest of the world,” she explains during an interview at local café.

Martin is one of 50 homeless clients taking part in a pilot phone service called Mobile4All. The phone plan, run by Silicon Valley-based Community Technology Alliance, keeps users connected even if they skip a payment. They offer individualized case management to teach computer literacy and offer tech support.

Phones donated by Google are free, though each client pays his or her own monthly bill. Each phone comes equipped with tools geared toward homeless and extremely low-income clients: apps to check bus routes and train schedules, find job listings, check the weather. They also provide uninterrupted service to key contacts, including emergency numbers like 2-1-1, a social services hotline, even if a client misses a payment.

The day before the Pineapple Express doused the region with much-needed rain, each Mobile4All user got a text alert warning of the storm and directing them to shelter.

“There’s a strong relation between communication and people getting housed and finding the resources they need to get on their feet,” says Julia Burkhead, CTA’s deputy director. “This is all part of our broader mission: to use technology to end homelessness.”

Contrary to prevailing notions about poverty, technology is vital to the unsheltered, says Allan Baez, the Mobile4All project manager who’s trying to get this program off the ground. Especially in Santa Clara County, where the CTA counted 28,759 people homeless at some point in 2012, while the latest point-in-time census recorded more than 7,500 unsheltered on a given night. CTA also conducted a first-of-its-kind study in March 2013 that of 498 low-income and unsheltered people surveyed, 69 percent owned a mobile phone. Of that total, 54 percent have data access.

And yet, because there’s so little information about technology use among the homeless, and because poverty remains a bulwark of unchecked prejudice in the U.S., the idea of a house-less person with a smartphone is unsettling to some. Last year in San Francisco, city Supervisor Malia Cohen drew criticism when she posted a picture of a panhandler chatting on his cellphone. “This kind of made me laugh,” she remarked under a picture she posted to Facebook (and later removed).

More recently, tech company Zendesk teamed up with Bay Area nonprofits to create a program called Link-SF to help homeless people connect with services by mobile phone. A segment of TV pundits and journalists snidely challenged the notion that homeless people would have the tools to ever use it.

But Baez argues that smartphones aren’t as much a luxury anymore as a necessity, even for the destitute. Part of the stigma comes from a misunderstanding of homelessness, a callow term for a complicated sociological condition. Local factors, like a dearth of affordable housing, ignite with broader issues like unemployment and personal situations such as addiction, financial troubles, violence and mental illness. Lacking shelter doesn’t mean a person is undeserving of technology, Baez says. If anything, the stakes are higher.

“Think of all the reasons you need a phone,” says Baez, a former geologist who found his way to the nonprofit sector by studying how natural disasters affect the poorest populations. “If you’re looking for a job, you need to give them a phone number. You need to call your doctor, your family. Basically, the reasons anyone else needs a phone. People expect you to have one. It’s part of our culture now.”

The federal government began subsidizing phone service for Americans in the mid-1980s, later expanding the program to include cell phones. About 1.4 million Americans use the service, called Lifeline, which costs clients from a couple bucks to $10 a month. But the program has drawn criticism for being slow, light on data and unreliable.

Less than 2 percent used Lifeline and most had never heard of it. Most had their service cut off for lack of payment and lost their number. Forty-six percent pay more than $45 a month of their own money, an average of 6 percent of their income. That’s the equivalent of someone earning $60,000 a year paying $300 a month.

“It shows people are willing to pay for reliable service,” Baez says. “And with a relatively large portion of their income.”

Mobile4All grew out of an older CTA program that gave homeless people a personalized mailbox. But usage began to drop off over the years as more homeless people began getting their own cellphones. The voicemail users dropped from the thousands at its peak to just 56 by the time CTA sunset the program.

“We realized that we needed a service that combined the low cost of Lifeline with the continuity of Community Voicemail,” Burkhead explains.

Because CTA isn’t a telecommunications company, it teamed up with BetterWorld Wireless, which offered discounted service. Clients at this point pay $40 a month, but the goal is to drop that to $25. The nonprofit also joined forces with Santa Clara University’s Frugal Innovation Lab, a student-led engineering team that develops affordable technologies, to come up with an app that makes it easier for homeless clients to connect with WiFi so they can conserve data.

Richard Hess, 43, got his Google Nexus phone a month ago and credits it with landing him a job as janitor at Whole Foods in Palo Alto.

“I was leaving my email address on job applications and no one would ever get back to me,” says Hess, who’s been homeless on and off about seven times over the years. “Soon as I had a phone number to leave, I started getting calls back.”

During his job search, while volunteering for Downtown Streets Team, a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit that offers job training and placement for the homeless, Hess says his phone also saved someone’s life.

“Me and my buddy were working, cleaning the street in Palo Alto, and we came across this lady kicking back on a bench,” he says. “We knew she was homeless and probably had some other health issues. But she had her shoes off and you could see that she had gangrene on her feet, a very advanced case.”

Realizing gangrene can be fatal, Hess dialed 9-1-1. An ambulance picked up the woman and rushed her to the hospital.

“She needed help,” Hess says. “Thankfully, we saw her in time to make the call.”

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. Great story. A phone is truly a necessity, especially when job searching and needing to be reachable by health professionals as I’m sure many of these people are.

    • The United States is the only country in the world, maybe even the only country in the history of mankind, where poor, homeless people are obese and have cell phones. If they are looking for work, then why not go to the unemployment office, by whatever conveyance might be available (bicycle, limousine, car, or rickshaw being pulled by a taxpayer), and stand in line. Now, not only are homeless people obese, with free phones for which they demand reliable cell phone service, but now they don’t want to be inconvenienced by standing in line or having to check back at the unemployment office?

    • A phone was once a convenience. Now, for MsKunt, it is a necessity. Soon it will become an entitlement.

      Please provide us with the objective data by which you became “sure” of your hypothesis?

  2. Gee, you would think the homeless would use their phones to reach out for help from their families and/or the many friends they’ve made in life. That they don’t tells you that, in almost every case, these people are living, breathing nightmares who are considered worthwhile only by the news reporters and do-gooders whose contact with them is always momentary.

    That said, that tattoo on Sylvia’s left breast looks as hot as her fancy coffee. Did Obama pay for that, too?

    • Dear FFF– Where did you get the idea that we DON’T reach out to fames and friends? Why do you assume we don’t? The article didn’t say we use our phones to have nourishing and supportive convos with fames and friends and share the new of jobs we’ve gotten with our spiffy new smartphones.

      Were you born this negative or do you have a negativity tutor?

      Why do you think you’re attracted to being negative and judgmental?

      I’d think you’d appreciate us so you can feel so superior to us.

      You’re welcome.

      Chuck Jagoda

    • Dear FFF–

      Where did you get the idea that we DON’T reach out to fames and friends? Why do you assume we don’t? The article didn’t say we use our phones to have nourishing and supportive convos with fames and friends and share the news of jobs we’ve gotten with our spiffy new smartphones–but i assure you we do.

      Were you born this negative or do you have a negativity tutor?

      Why do you think you’re attracted to being negative and judgmental?

      I’d think you’d appreciate us so you can feel so superior to us.

      You’re welcome.

      Chuck Jagoda

  3. Ms. Wadsworth’s latest poster child works part time, is homeless off and on, but now has a micro unit, yet has the money to spend on the overpriced overroasted coffee at Starbucks. No-one really needs a phone app to find the closest Starbucks. If you’re in any city, just walk six blocks and you’ll find one.

  4. Great article Jennifer – thank you for highlighting this project! Even though the article says this I wanted to emphasize that people are paying for their monthly service. The phone is free because we were able to secure a generous donation from Google. The monthly service does come with extra supports to help those who are homeless get access to life saving service, which is the difference with traditional phone plans. No federal (tax payer) dollars have been used to pay for this project – it has all been through private donation. The goal is to find the price point that will allow this project to be self sustaining without additional – or very little additional funding to supplement the project. We collected data and did surveying for over a year before implementing this project – and are collecting information now to understand the impact – so the project has been data driven and data informed from the get go. As a homeless advocate, we know that communication tools that allow for the same access to information, housing and job opportunities (and timely communications back and forth) as the rest of the world is critical to success. From data we also know that those who are are able to communicate and maintain good family relations are the most successful at staying housed.

    Thanks to all who support an end to homelessness!

  5. > Thanks to all who support an end to homelessness!

    Why is there still “homelessness”?

    People with big hearts have been trying to “end homelessness” since at least 1986.

    Why have the “big hearts” failed?

    Providing shopping carts, and cell-phone plans, and mobile showering facilities is just “homelessness enablement”.

    Yes, I know. We are all just one stock market crash, or Obama depression, away from being “homeless”.

    If I chose to avail myself of the abundance provided by the “big hearts”, I could be “homeless” in Pacific Heights outside of Dianne Feinstein’s house, or in Tiburon, around the corner from Barbara Boxer, or in Newport Beach, in the shadow of Barbra Streisand’s gated community mansion.

    God knows, I can’t afford the housing prices in any of those places.

    But, silly me and like 99 percent of Americans, I somehow found a way to provide my own housing and live along side of the rest of humanity without shaming the Google and Safeway corporation customers into providing me with a free cell phone or a free shopping cart.

    Places like Detroit, and Compton, and the Bronx exist for a reason: they provide abundant, available, and affordable housing for “the homeless” so they don’t have to be “homeless”.

    What! you say? It’s inhumane to make “the homeless” live in Detroit or Compton, when they have been enabled to live in Paciic Heights, or Tiburon, or San Jose?

    Well, then. STOP enabling them!

    • Well, then. STOP enabling them!

      Bubble you’re right. I read a good article on rawstory the other night that said a good majority of the homeless in San Jose are here because they have enablers, I.E. their family. Many have been kicked out of their homes from a young age, but stay around because the families still offer hand outs.

      My dad talked about his girlfriends brother. Poor guy is a hardcore meth addict. I know your pragmatism, I know you’ll probably think, “Nobody held a gun to his head to take meth” He lives in a van his father bought him, “Scavenging and foraging” as you might say.

      Another friend, of Japanese heritage made some comments, and I asked him, “Why don’t I see many homeless Asians?” Yes bubbles, let’s ask this as long as we’re being pragmatic. We live in a city that by census data proves Asian is 1/3rd of the population. Yet by my estimates, they represent only 10% (if that) of the homeless population.

      They exist, they hide or are sheltered by family in most cases,

      Was my Japanese friends response. Most Asians would be too ashamed to be seen in public if homeless, or their family at least lets them couchsurf. So pragmatically speaking, it would seem that a lifetime influence of cultural pride by family and elders is the key to solving the homeless issue.

      I agree though, let’s not call them “Homeless” We can call them “Victims of a cultural heritage that is just fine throwing them out on the streets” or “Victims of families that can’t be bothered to take care of their own”.Yet this is just one segment of the homeless population. Calling them “foragers” isn’t why they live there. The spectrum of people living under the elements include families that had a sting of bad luck, addicts, mentally ill. A lot of these folks just need a small “boost” to get back on their feet. The addicts though, we have to rethink how we treat them.

      Cold turkey isn’t the solution. If our goal is to get folks to leave the streets and into programs, we have to have a carrot. I would say, we need inpatient programs that are a required 30 to 60 days. Clean bed, hot shower, and a step down plan from addiction using chemically similar drugs. Heroin has Methadone, there has to be equivalents for methamphetamine and alcohol. Maybe Ritalin would get rid of the meth bugs.

      But by no means do these people want these lives… For some the addiction is just a way to deal with the pain of family rejection. Maybe it’s not their fault.. Maybe they were born out of wedlock, or one of the parents weren’t the right “race” A lifetime of family rejecting you for lame reasons like that can drive a person to the edge of madness.

      What happens to a child when a village turns its back?

      • Politicians (and “activists”) exploit the “homeless” situation like legislators exploit “omnibus” budgets: lump everything together so you can accuse people who oppose waste, fraud, and corruption of being against rescuing kittens from trees.

        The biggest part of the “homeless” problem are the mentally ill. Closing the institutions for the mentally ill (“insane asylums”, state homes, “warehousing”, whatever) was a BIG, BIG, BIG mistake. It was done by Jerry Brown’s daddy in an INSANE spasm of politically correct pandering to the “big hearts”.

        Reestablish state homes, have a sensible system of standards and monitoring (government is GREAT at standards and monitoring, just ask them), and make it possible to commit truly insane people with appropriate safeguards. State homes would likely cost a LOT less than the crazy patchwork of goofy “homeless enablement” programs intended to not hurt the self esteem of the homeless and make the “big hearts” feel good.

        Half the “homeless” problem becomes solved, and then serious people can turn to sorting out the drug addicted, the lazy, the bums, and the unfortunate.

        • NO! NO! NO! You miss the point completely.

          We’ve been there and tried that. Canada tried it too, which led to the Duplessis orphans. Long story short, the Catholic Church saw a financial windfall by declaring all children to be “Orphans” Our federally funded state mental institutions saw the same thing happen with “Management Corporations” Making people lifetime wards of the state is like telling a bunch of investors, “Hey, if you can do the bare, minimum standards of warehousing people, we’ll give you $$$”

          Which is why Reagan closed them down. No psychiatrist involved in the hospitals ever had a real interest in rehabilitation, because that meant a portion of funding would be cut off. Say your patient is crazy forever, receive a lifetime check.

          If we can hold people accountable for dog bites, we can hold families and communities accountable for the damage their “outcast” family members cause to society.

          • > We’ve been there and tried that. Canada tried it too, which led to the Duplessis orphans.


            So, You can’t trust the state, and you can’t trust the Church.

            Is the answer, then, just to push the “homeless” people onto their overtaxed and underemployed familes, who don’t have the resources or skills to deal with difficult, self-destructive, or sociopathic family members?

            Sounds to me like an insoluble problem.

          • How is it insoluble if an entire geographic ancestrally linked segment of the population manages to do it? Other geographically linked peoples individually linked family units manage it to a degree as well.

            Only in America is it OK to push a bird out of a nest before it can fly.

        • Wrong governor. Lanterman Petris Short Act was signed by the big softy Reagan, not Brown.

          • > Wrong governor. Lanterman Petris Short Act was signed by the big softy Reagan, not Brown.

            This seems to be a chronic issue of contention between Republicans and Democrats.

            The Republican narrative is that Governor Daddy Brown pushed for it and signed it, and then dumped it on successor Governor Reagan to implement.

            The Democrat narrative is that “the insane asylums were emptied out under the ‘heartless’ Reagan and created the “homeless problem”.

            Now is your opportunity to provide some links or other evidence to save history from the misinformed.

        • SJOUTSIDETHE BUBBLE: it was not Pat Brown that let all the nut jobs out on the streets. It was a confluence of Governor Ronald Reagan and the ACLU. Reagan just wanted to cut the budget. The ACLU said the mentally ill have rights, and the liberal judges agreed. And after the ACLU “won” these “rights” for the mentally unstable, the ACLU abandoned them to the streets, where we can encounter them daily in the downtown of any metropolitan area.

          • > The ACLU said the mentally ill have rights, and the liberal judges agreed.

            Sounds more like the narrative I am familiar with.

            I don’t think it ts “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” to blame the closure of asylums and the dumping of mentally ill people on Reagan.

            I also don’t think that Jerry Brown’s daddy was an innocent bystander in this sordid debacle.

            It may be necessary to waterboard a few Democrats to get to the full truth.

        • Dear SJOutsidetheBubble—

          You speak of the “Big Hearts.” I think that Big Heartedness is definitely the way to go. I think that there are “Little Hearts” who are rather good at coming up with bad guys: poverty pimps and exploiters and enablers of the homeless are some of the names used as a way to support their stinginess. There is a natural thing in humans to help out their deprived brethren and sistren. You see it in natural disasters but not so much when it’s a slow motion transfer of more wealth than EVER before in history from poor to rich that we are in the midst of right now and which has been going on since Reagan

          I think those names and arguments of the “Little Hearts” are so attractive because at first blush they seem like great money savers and preservers of the wealth of those who worry a lot (maybe to the exclusion of all else) about “their” money. So much so that they enable the fat oil cats to do what they want without realizing the price of oil is as significant as their tax bill. The policies of being harsh to homeless people are not money saving. In fact most places in this country realize that doing the moral thing— putting unhoused people in housing– is the economical thing and actually SAVES quite a bit of money.

          I think Jesus and Gandhi and Pope Francis and a lot of the good guys and gals are considered the good — or as you say “Big” — hearted types because they’d rather be too generous than too mean.

          Too many folks today are born on third base and think they hit a triple and feel very entitled to scoring. They didn’t hit a triple— they had parents who sacrificed for them and educated them and forbears who invented clocks and computers and cars. We are fortunate enough to HAVE these things– but we mustn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we DESERVE them. We dang sure didn’t invent them or build them. We all stand on the shoulders of others. We white eyes stole all this land from the Indians. We darned near exterminated them to build our condos on their land.

          We really do owe a debt to the Indians whose land we took and the black people who we took from their land and on whose backs the wealth and power of this country was built. Blacks and Indians used to be the outcasts of other centuries just as homeless are today— many of whom are Indians and blacks and veterans and the working poor.

          Even today– some neighbors of the Cubberley Community center in Palo Alto ginned up a lot of prejudice against the homeless who camped there. They said the homeless were messy and scared their children. Their solution was to throw out the homeless so this community center could be for their use only. Not so different from the “need” to expel the Indians from these lands and take the lands for the use of those who drove them out.

          It’s good to be a little grateful and a little humble sometimes— like the good guys above — and think of what you can do for others less fortunate than yourself.

          Those with money can think they “deserve” it and will always have it. Not true. Many of us who you see and want to dismiss as drug/alcohol abusers and mental cases used to live in those expensive homes and have nice cars to drive to those high tech jobs— before we were no longer valuable and no longer had valuables.

          We are not some foreign invading army you are under attack from. We are you and your friends’ children somewhere further down the road.

          We are you.

          • > We are you.

            You are confused.

            You are NOT me.

            You are one hundred and ten percent narcissist who looks in the mirror and sees a morally superior person.

            > In fact most places in this country realize that doing the moral thing . . . .

            “THE moral thing …” according to YOUR morality.

            Making war on other tribes . . e.g. the “white eyes” . . . and vilifying them, and stealing the product of their deferred consumption, their saving, and their labor may be “morality” according to YOUR shaman or YOUR witch doctor, but it is not my morality.

  6. > How is it insoluble if an entire geographic ancestrally linked segment of the population manages to do it?

    You’re going to have to parse this.

    How has “an entire geographic ancestrally linked segment of the population” solved the problem of mental illness?

  7. > because poverty remains a bulwark of unchecked prejudice in the U.S.

    What the hell does this mean?

    How many other “bulwarks of unchecked prejudice” are there in the U.S.?

    And what is Obama doing about it? Last I heard, poverty in the U.S. is now greater than when Obama took office.

    “The median income of American households dropped by $2,627 during President Barack Obama’s first term — and the number of people in poverty rose by about 6,667,000, according to a new report from the Census Bureau.”

  8. Homelessness is not a homogeneous issue, so there is no one size fits all solution. Nevertheless, local governments, supported by the limousine liberals and other do gooders, keep seeking the one single magic wand to make it all peachy keen. The recent demolition of The Jungle sent its occupants scurrying for another locale. The City of SJ and the limousine liberals and the other do gooders keep pushing shelters, rent vouchers, and “programs” for ever homeless person. Even the news media are finally reporting that many folks don’t like shelters because they don’t like the shelter rules. Well, that crowd is not employable, either, since employment requires that rules be obeyed just as the shelters do. So, separate out the rules haters and the nut jobs, and the chronic druggies and you cut the homeless that can actually be helped by at least 75%. Take care of the 25% who need a leg up and can follow rules and are not schizophrenic and don’t do drugs. Stop continually enabling the other 75%.

  9. I am amazed by how mean and unkind people could be to a handful of people who aren’t as lucky as you guys. I am going to blame it on lack of academic knowledge about homeless people and causes of homeless. if you haven’t heard of something called HMIS, look it up in google and you will know the problem of homelessness is solvable, and federal government is doing lot more than giving a handout.

    • I Googled HMIS as you suggested. What I found, Asterix, is a lot of federal money going out, with few demonstrated positive permanent results. More taxpayer money down the rathole.

      • I’m going to beg to differ on this one JOHNMICHAEL. As you stated before there is no “One size fits all” solution to homelessness: HMIS is a very real and tangible practice to help inform multiple solutions. Practice should be informed by data, and then improved when a finding merits a change or improvement. HMIS – now in place in many communities for over 10 years has become the backbone of information for communities to determine what works and what doesn’t work. There are legitimate studies that show data collection through HMIS are a cost savings to manual data collection and compilation on paper forms. There are also legitimate studies that suggest that some people do not need an intervention – and actually providing one will keep them homeless longer. That is SOME people, but not all. Other studies show family relations matter in keeping people housed. Multiple studies show it is more costly to keep a chronically homeless person with a disability on the street – than to just house them and provide services is place. Without HMIS, knowing this information and having the back up to prove it would be impossible.
        Now, because of HMIS, Communities are using the the data to “right size” an intervention and place into appropriate housing or provide shelter but no other intervention when someone can find housing quickly on their own. Data collected can be combined with local economic data and housing information, social service and health/hospital utilization – and in some cases school information to get a more robust understanding of the situation. It’s not perfect, but the work is being done to continually improve our understanding – and to help decision makers appropriately allocate dollars.
        I suppose you might be one that thinks that all homeless people should find their own solution to homelessness. Appox 15,000 a year in our County do. But we find 7 – 8k each year that are unable to find a stable housing situation. Here is what I know about what I personally want for our Community: I want to ensure everyone has a home. Here is what I want for my pocketbook: For my tax dollars to go toward housing people – and not to supporting all of the high cost emergency services that homeless use. JOHN – if I can’t appeal to your compassion for other people, hopefully I can appeal to your sense of fiscal responsibility.

        • Thank you Jen for all the information in one place. I hope people can read them and stop bad mouthing community efforts to reduce and finally eradicate homelessness. Compassionate or not, it is good for everyone.

          • > Thank you Jen for all the information in one place.


            What information?

            I didn’t see much real information in Jen’s posting. It was what information scientists call “meta data”: It’s not “data”, it’s “data about data”.

            > “Multiple studies show . . . ” blah, blah, blah.

            Were the “studies” good studies, or bad studies? Where they done by serious, unbiased researchers informed by science and mathematics, of were they “goal driven” studies conducted by “activists” seeking to prove a pre-established conclusion?

            Were the studies “cherry picked” to support the proposition the authors wanted to support? Were “dissenting” studies ignored or suppressed. See “global warming”.

            Were the studies “peer reviewed”, or were they, like many government funded global warming studies “pal reviewed”?

            Sadly, the fact that this of that “politically relevant” topic was the subject of a “study’ means NOTHING in this day and age. NOTHING. And very often, WORSE THAN NOTHING.

            “Studies”, in this day and age, are often nothing more than chapters in the narrative of political correctness.


    I want to apologize for my assumption that homeless people weren’t reaching out to friends and family, as I didn’t realize that, like SETI signals sent out deep into space, the problem wasn’t the lack of outreach but the emptiness in return. Having been a helpful and reliable person to the people in my life, my error was based on my old-fashioned concept of family and friends being the first line of defense against destitution.

    I hope your family and friends enjoy answering your calls and hearing how much help you’re getting from the government and charitable strangers.

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