Society in transition: DC homeless use cellphones as lifelines

To the usual trappings that help many homeless people endure life on the streets — woollen blankets, shopping carts or cardboard box shelters — add the cellphone.

Today, it's not unusual for the homeless to whip out Nokia 6085 GoPhones or stop at a public computer to check e-mail. It's another sign of a society in transition by way of technology, as businesses shed physical addresses for cyberspace and homeless people can establish an online presence and chase opportunities digitally.

"Having a phone isn't even a privilege anymore, it's a necessity," said Rommel McBride, 50, who spent six years on the streets before recently being placed in a city housing programme. He has had a mobile phone for a year. "A cellphone is the only way you can call to keep up with your food stamps, your housing application, your job... it's your last line of communication with the world."

Advocates who work with the District of Columbia's homeless estimate that 30 to 45 per cent of the people they help have cellphones. A smaller number have e-mail accounts, and some blog to chronicle their lives on the streets.

"Phones are really a lifeline for many people," said Adam Rocap, director of social services at Miriam's Kitchen, a non-profit drop-in centre for the homeless.

At Miriam's Kitchen this month, dozens of cellphones snapped to attention and captured photos of first lady Michelle Obama when she stopped by to serve lunch. The scenario rankled some conservative commentators, who bemoaned a society where people who don't have homes can afford mobile phones.

At the Communication Connection store, Donald Camp sells plenty of pay-as-you-go phones for $30 or less. "Sometimes, they pay (for minutes) with cups of coins," Camp said.

Chris, 42, got an entry-level job at Verizon Center last year. He tried to get back on his feet, but each time, he missed calls from his boss, who often dialed a soup kitchen or shelter switchboard. Eventually, he was labeled unreliable and lost the job.

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