Cell phones a lifeline for the homeless

Dennis “the menace” Hart shows his cell phone at Whitman Park as he hangs out with other homeless people.

Mary Jane Sanchez would be lost without her cell phone. The homeless Grand Junction woman uses the Verizon cell phone she received from her 27-year-old son at Christmas to talk to him often, after 9 p.m., when her minutes are free.

“It’s way convenient,” she said, while playing cribbage on the grass with a friend Thursday at Whitman Park. “For $15, I’m able to contact my family. He went years without knowing where his mom was. If I’ve got minutes, I’ll call him.”

If it seems like just about everyone has a cell phone these days, they probably do. And the technology is considered by homeless advocates to be a necessity.

“It’s completely reasonable to think they would spend $20 on a cell phone to stay in touch with people they need to stay in touch with,” said Jordan McGinnis, director of Homeward Bound, a homeless shelter at 2853 North Ave.

McGinnis said clients looking for work need a way to call and receive calls from potential employers, keep appointments and stay in touch with friends and family. The shelter has one phone line that clients can use, but that comes with a five-minute time limit. It’s not realistic that up to 140 people a night will be able to use the phone, he said.

“It can be busy all night sometimes,” he said of the office phone. “Asking an employer to call you back at a certain time for five minutes, that’s just not the way the world works anymore.”

Homeless people generally don’t sign up for expensive monthly plans, but instead purchase disposable phones and buy minutes on phone cards. McGinnis said there are alternatives for folks to save that money and use free phones at places like the Catholic Outreach Day Center. While helpful, that access is limited to the center’s open hours of 8 a.m. to noon. Pay phones, too, have largely disappeared from public places.

Executive Director Karen Bland of Grand Valley’s Catholic Outreach said organizers were taken aback a few years ago when more and more clients, some who weren’t homeless, were seen toting cell phones.

“They said it was so much cheaper than using land lines,” Bland said.

To save money, the organization eliminated a land line from its emergency housing unit, she said.

Bland estimated about 40 percent of the up to 75 people who come for breakfast carry cell phones. The practice is even more common among those in their 20s, with many of those folks also keeping in touch via e-mail.

“If they’re looking for a job in the paper, it gives them a way to make that call,” Bland said.


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