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Cellphones an 'inexpensive necessity' for homeless

Cellphones are commonly used by homeless people to stay in contact with family, potential employers and housing opportunities as seen here Jan. 18 at the Churches United for the Homeless shelter.

MOORHEAD, Minn. -- Like most people these days, Todd Rau needs his cellphone.

"I think a cellphone is a basic necessity for everyone," he said.

Does it matter that Rau is lacking other basic necessities? The 47-year-old is staying at Churches United for the Homeless in Moorhead.

"There are folks who will think it's a horrible extravagance for homeless people to have a cellphone," said John Roberts, director of shelter operations at Churches United, "but in the big scheme of things, it's an inexpensive necessity. It's a tool for people to use.

"You may not be able to afford $600 per month for rent, but you can afford a $45 phone card," Roberts said.

Rau said he uses his phone for communicating with potential employers.

People do have the option of giving employers the shelter's phone number, but shelter directors across the metro agree: It's inconvenient and can be embarrassing in a job search.

"If you list a homeless shelter phone number as your primary contact info, a lot of employers just don't take that seriously or they may look the other way just because of that," said Rob Swiers, assistant director at the New Life Center in Fargo.

Cellphones are also an important tool that homeless people use to contact potential landlords when looking for permanent housing, Roberts said.

Malcolm Evans, 50, who is staying at Churches United, said he also uses his phone to arrange medical appointments.

In addition to helping homeless people find jobs and housing, cellphones are -- like with everyone -- their way of staying in touch with family and friends.

"It's an important way to connect for that social support," said Sonja Ellner, director of the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality in Moorhead.

A 2012 study released by the American Sociological Association shows more homeless people using phones to access social media websites, where they can keep in contact with family and friends.

Roberts said people also use the Churches United computer lab and the computers at public libraries to access social media.

Debra Evans, who is staying at Churches United with her husband, said her parents "would be frantic" if they weren't able to check on her.

But the main reason Evans, 47, has her own cellphone is for security reasons.

"If I need help, or if I see an accident, I can call 911, for either myself or someone else," she said. The security of a cellphone is especially important for homeless people who may have to sleep outside, alone at night, Evans said.

"I've slept outdoors," she said. "So for me, (having a cellphone) is a comfort and a security."

Roberts and Ellner say most of the people they see in shelters own cellphones.

But for those who don't, there are federal programs that provide free cellphones to people who are homeless or living in poverty. One of those organizations is the federal Lifeline Assistance Program.

The Lifeline program was created in 1985 to help make telephone services affordable to those with low income. It's overseen by the Federal Communications Commission, and is funded by a surcharge on phone bills known as the Universal Service Fund.

Representatives from Life Wireless, a national cellphone provider that administers phones via the Lifeline program, were in Moorhead earlier this month to hand out phones to the homeless and those with low income.

Space was donated by Lakes and Prairies Community Action Partnership and the Dorothy Day House, and phones were given out with rave success, said Becki Johnson, a self-sufficiency advocate at Lakes and Prairies.

"We had people lined up a good half hour or more beforehand," she said, adding that Life Wireless could be back in the near future to do another phone distribution.

Those who wanted a phone had to be a Minnesota resident and provide a photo ID. Cellphones distributed via the Lifeline program include voicemail, text messaging, three-way calling and caller ID.

Life Wireless phones offer 250 minutes per month, said Paul Donsky, a spokesperson for Life Wireless.

To apply for a free phone, one's income must be at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty line, according to documents distributed by Life Wireless.

For a four-person household in Minnesota and North Dakota, that is about $31,100 annually.

If the household income is more than that, the family can still apply for a phone if they use one of the following programs: food stamps, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, Minnesota Family Investment Program, Section 8 federal housing assistance, national free school lunch program, and a few others.

Most people with phones through Life Wireless are not actually homeless, but are living in poverty, Donsky said.

The Lifeline program operates in Minnesota, eight other states and Puerto Rico. North Dakota is not among them.

"Just about everyone we serve here meets those (low income) qualifications," said Jan Eliassen, director of the Gladys Ray Shelter in Fargo. "I think that nobody's been able to take it on and try to make it happen and commit the time to it that it must take to get it here."

Local efforts to start a similar cellphone subsidy program or some kind of "community voicemail" in Fargo have not been successful, she said.