California begins providing free cell phones and service to impoverished

150 150 Matthew Grant Anson

Homeless people and other impoverished Californians are elligible for a free cell phone. (Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon)

With the recent sequestration cuts and ideological battles over welfare and entitlements becoming the norm in Washington, social programs have taken a beating over the last month.

Because of this, it may come as a surprise to some – and a very real relief to others – that Californians making less than $14,702 a year are now eligible for a free cell phone and service, courtesy of the state. The subsidized cell phones come as an expansion of the Lifeline program, which provided free landline service to the poor, bringing the program into the increasingly mobile 21st century.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Chrysalis CEO Mark Loranger said. Chrysalis is a Los Angeles based nonprofit that works to provide low-income and homeless people a path to self-sufficiency. “One of the biggest issues our clients have is staying connected to potential employers during their job search. Many of them don’t have cell phones. And they certainly don’t have landlines.”

The expansion of Lifeline to include mobile service is a long time coming, says Loranger. “The fact that regulators have decided, hey, it makes sense that we use it for mobile technology…I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before,” he said. “I think sometimes when it comes to regulatory policy, it just takes a long time for things to work their way through the system. For technology, it grows a lot faster than regulatory policy sometimes.”

However, the idea of putting cell phones in the hands of the homeless draws hesitancy from Estela Lopez, executive director of the Central City East Association. The CCEA, which is a business improvement district, comes into contact with the homeless residents of Skid Row daily in its efforts to improve the business and social climate of the Industrial District of LA.

“This is a tricky thing,” Lopez said. “There is perhaps an unforeseen potential consequence. Out here on Skid Row, the number one hindrance to people getting into programs and services and housing, the thing that keeps people homeless, is the availability of narcotics. So many of the people we have on Skid Row are mentally ill – they are incapable of making decisions in the same manner you and I do. To give them a cell phone, it might be a help, it might be a waste.”

Lopez also has concern for the propensity of cell phone equipped homeless people to become victims of robbery. “The folks out here on the street that are unsheltered, that have to deal with the elements, that have their possessions exposed on the sidewalk…cell phones are a pretty hot commodity when it comes to theft,” Lopez said. “Does it make them a target for gang members to steal these phones? When you live on the street, anything and everything can happen to you. You are a potential victim. Are you giving the potential victims something of value that others will steal from them?”

But Loranger is a full-on supporter of the program in spite of Lopez’s concerns. In fact, he wants to see the program expanded from the 250 talk minutes and 250 texts to include Internet as well. “As we know, if you’re going to be doing a job search, you need Internet access,” he said. “I’d love to see this go to the next step, where the devices are broadband enabled. We can all do that today; most us can with an iPad or smart phone. I’d love to see our clients be able to do that.”

As for the inevitable criticism that providing free cell phones is a waste of tax dollars in a time of fiscal scrimping, Loranger comes prepared to beat that idea down. “If they’re able to have their own device, that means they’re going to get a job that much faster, get off public assistance faster, pay taxes faster,” he said. “If we don’t invest in these, then the cost is much more significant.”

Lopez advocates a more blunt approach to easing the lives of the homeless beyond this type of programming. “I do not think we should be doing anything to make the streets more hospitable to live,” she said. Instead, “Stop making it easier for people to live on the streets. I think the public sector has to come to grips with the fact that it must meet its commitment of creating housing and recovery programs for people. They also must enforce legislation and public policies that will keep the sidewalks from becoming a choice for people to live.”

Chrysalis wants to get its clients employed, off the street, and self sufficient. If there aren’t businesses with jobs in the area willing to hire the homeless, what results is the never ending chicken-or-the-egg scenario where the homeless can’t get hired and businesses can’t thrive beacuse they can’t tap into a wealth of potential employees. Middle of the road policies like free cell phones may not fully satisfy either side, but it’s a middle ground that provides optimism for quelling a homeless population that has exploded in Los Angeles. 

“Human beings should not live on the street,” Lopez continued. “No one’s mental illness, no one’s health gets better on the street. If they are doing so because of a lack, on our part, of providing them appropriate shelter, then shame on us. People don’t live on the street; they die on the street.” 


Matthew Grant Anson

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