The Homeless Person with a Cell Phone
Despite nearly everyone owning a cell phone, we think of them as luxuries, especially as data plans approach $100 a month. The idea of a homeless man with an iPhone, but no job or roof over his head, is discomfiting, mostly because poverty is perhaps one of the last bastions of unexamined prejudice in the U.S. Few would argue that people of different races or genders shouldn’t own phones, but it’s still common to temper sympathy for the homeless or destitute if they have a phone.
Even the most progressive areas of the country can show a certain callousness to what poverty should look and feel like. In San Francisco, for example, city supervisor Malia Cohen sparked controversy when she posted a picture of a homeless man on Facebook, talking on a phone while huddled underneath a freeway overpass. “This kind of made me laugh,” she commented, which lead to an uproar and eventual removal of the picture. Ironically, California last month decided to expand their Lifeline program to give free phones and service to the homeless, recognizing the value of the devices for the disadvantage.
Mobiledia has a story about Bert, a homeless man who has a thing that he finds absolutely crucial: a Blackberry. Seeing a homeless person with a cell phone can bring up the kind of reaction San Francisco’s city supervisor had: What is a homeless person doing with a cell phone if this person can’t even afford to find a place to live?
But as Bert explains, the Blackberry allows him to call around to find paid work. It has helped him find locations where he could stay for the night. It has helped him find transportation to soup kitchens and work sites. And perhaps most importantly, it has helped him feel like a normal person.
“You won’t believe it,” he tells me, “but if I didn’t have my phone, I probably couldn’t just sit here and have my coffee and be talking to you. It gives me something I can do in public. It’s not loitering if I’m typing or talking on my phone.” Loitering, he said, is often a good excuse to kick the homeless out of a place. And a phone is a passport that lets him stay in places longer than he would otherwise.
Photo: Martin Hajek
Support The Billfold