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.”