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Homelessness 2.0: Technology a 'Lifeline' for Those Living on the Street

Shelters and other organizations that assist the homeless have taken notice of the increasing importance of providing access to technology for men and women who are homeless.

Technology is no longer a luxury item, but a necessity for job searching, staying connected and living — particularly for those living on the streets.

To Gerald Davis, a homeless man who hopes to get his own apartment, the disability insurance dollars he spends on a $50-a-month flip phone allows him to talk with his daughter and helps him stay in contact with the Arlington County Department of Human Services.

“I’m not crazy about the telephone, but it’s a necessary evil,” said Davis, who has been staying at the Arlington County Emergency Winter Shelter. “If (friends) happen to come up with a job lead for me, they’ll let me know.”

To men and women living on the streets, access to a computer or phone can be the key factor in gaining a job or hearing about affordable housing opportunities — or even where to grab a bite to eat. To adjust to the rising needs of technology, shelters, libraries and other services have devoted time and energy to acquiring such devices.

'In Contact With the World'

Georgetown Ministry Center Executive Director Gunther Stern oversaw the addition of computers in that organization's daytime shelter to accommodate the rising need to stay connected and to bring homeless clients out of the public libraries and into the center. He wanted to teach them how to use computer applications like Google Docs.

“We had to create a space where people had access to computers and books,” Stern said. “There’s a lot of demand for it.”

At Georgetown Ministry Center, homeless men and women who arrive during the day have access to the program's five Macintosh computers, cell phone chargers and landline phones. Computer use is limited to hour-long slots.

They use the computers for online courses, Facebook, games, email, job searching and reading the news, said several people waiting in line recently for computer time.

“Technology, for me, is my way of being in contact with the world,” said Herbert Toliver. “Without it, we would not know what is going on. Where else would we get it if it was not here?”

Since visiting the Georgetown center during the day, Toliver has used his allotted computer time to search for past friends and family and to stay connected with world news.

A Changing Reality

Not all of the area's homeless are limited to visiting shelters or libraries to use a computer. Some have been able to hold on to their tech from when they did have a home; others have acquired a means to connect since.

Lando Mapeki, a homeless man at the Emergency Winter Shelter in Arlington, calls his personal laptop his “buddy” and has taken it with him everywhere he's gone for the past four years. Thanks to his buddy, Mapeki is able to take accounting, franchising and investment courses online.

"(Technology) is a lifeline," said Jan-Michael Sacharko, development director at the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network, or A-SPAN. "It’s hard to imagine anyone now not having a cellphone or Facebook."

It's a reality for people on the street and those who work with them — but society's perception of the homeless seems to have changed at a slower pace than smartphones or tablets.

A 2009 Associated Press photo from taken of Michelle Obama serving food Miriam’s Kitchen in Washington showed a homeless man snapping a pic of the first lady on his phone.

The photo, which accompanies this Washington Post follow-up story, caused a slight public uproar. Some people who saw the picture thought the man should not be able to afford a cell phone and take a free meal.

And Changing Perceptions

But phone prices drop considerably as new models are introduced. “You really can’t survive with out a phone,” Sacharko said. “Most people on the streets have a flip phone – it’s not uncommon.”

Assurance Wireless is just one program designed to help low-income people obtain cell phones through the Lifeline Assistance Program. Funding for the Lifeline benefits — which include a free allocation of texts and minutes — is covered thanks to private carrier contributions to what's called the Universal Service Fund, said Jack Pflanz, an Assurance Wireless spokesman. For Assurance Wireless specifically, Sprint pays for the phones, chargers, manuals and shipping.

Recently, homeless people who do not have a regular address have been able to apply for the program.

Acceptance of this new trend is starting to show.

Georgetown University students recently donated 350 100-minute calling cards they acquired by reaching out to philanthropic organizations. The two students gave the cards to the Georgetown Ministry Center in December.

“Technology helps everybody,” said Andrew Benthall, who uses the center during the day. “The exposure to it gives people here exposure to the outside world.”

FAIR April 09, 2013 at 08:57 PM
Five Macintosh computers sounds unwise and flashy, especially given that Georgetown Ministries has lacked an adequate hot water heater over the past few years that would enable them to provide more than a few loads of laundry and showers...two very much needed services that are not adequately met elsewhere, especially for the street homeless it caters towards. Not to mention that Georgetown Ministries receives government money for their programs.

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