Why do Homeless People Have Cell Phones?

Why give the homeless portable phone chargers?

ChargeUp provides the street community with portable phone chargers at St. Boniface Church. We just received a $3,000 grant from LinkedIn, allowing us to expand beyond our pilot at The Gubbio Project.

It’s a routine day for Jacob of Concrn, the compassionate response network. He parks his car outside the construction site that is Dolores Park and chats with the regulars. Those folks most of us pretend to ignore on San Francisco’s crowded sidewalks, or even on our own doorsteps.

Through these conversations, Jacob learns one of their major needs is a place to charge their phones. These people can afford phones? One of them, he is surprised to learn, receives nearly $2,000 each month in disability checks.

A man charges his phone from a battery pack on Market Street

“With that kind of cashflow, what are you doing out here?” asks Jacob, a clean-cut Palo Alto kid who gets by on less money than the homeless man next to him. I can attest that Jacob is a wonderful couchsurfer, cooking meals for his hosts and going on cleaning sprees.

Jacob has excelled at building social capital — friends and family happy to host, feed, and care for him whenever he might need it. While we aren’t all as extroverted as Jacob, we can relate to this social capital. It’s what allows us to live with roommates and crash on couches in between apartments, evictions, and break-ups.

However, this man receiving nearly two grand tax-free from the government each month has very little social capital. Unable to find roommates (challenging in San Francisco even for the most social people), he’d have to resort to a one-bedroom apartment, which in the city costs upwards of $3,500/month.

Actually, there’s a type of housing designed specifically for this character. It’s called a Single-Room Occupancy, referred to on the street as an SRO. At $45/night you get a bed, access to a bathroom, and a roof over your head but not much more. When funds run out, you’re back on the street until the next welfare check comes.

While his checks are bigger than most, his story is not unusual. People earning two or three times the national poverty line can easily find themselves on the street in San Francisco.

“People don’t seem to understand that a phone costs less than rent” says a girl sitting on a street corner in an interview with The Huffington Post. “And I just left the guy that was abusing me.”

While I cannot imagine what she has gone through, I understand how she could be frustrated by people’s lack of awareness. ChargeUp is a portable phone charger exchange program for the homeless that I help run. When I tell my friends about it, I often get surprised reactions, laughs even. “Shouldn’t they be spending their money on something more important, like a home?” Even if we disregard the Lifeline Assistance program (a.k.a. Obamaphone) or Google’s free wifi in the city, the economics of the two are on different scales.

Another question I get a lot is “Why would a homeless person need a phone anyway?” Many social services and job opportunities actually require phone or internet access to apply. According to Meghan Murphy of HandUp, “if you’re in a homeless shelter, a cell phone is the one tool you have to seek resources and services that will help you get housed.”

A recent study conducted at The Gubbio Project found 61% of chronically homeless survey respondents reported experiencing two or more disabling conditions, including chronic depression (46%), chronic health problems (44%); mental illness (37%); and HIV/AIDS (10%). A cell phone facilitates much needed connection to medical services and emergency contacts.

However, the demand for power to charge these phones is high. Although assistance programs provide free devices and data, San Francisco and other cities lack public electrical outlets. Some vagabond communities have developed secret codes to locate public outlets. At The Gubbio Project, where we’ve piloted ChargeUp, people now come specifically to charge their phone.

St. Boniface Church, home of The Gubbio Project

“When it opens up you are anxious to get in there…and get your battery recharged,” says one Gubbio Project guest in a CBS SF Bay Area report. “I just get a couple of hours and then I’m back at what I need to do.”

Interested in helping expand ChargeUp? Get in touch.