D.C. Homeless People Use Cellphones, Blogs and E-Mail to Stay on Top of Things

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 23, 2009

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

Today, it's not unusual for the homeless to whip out Nokia 6085 GoPhones (with optional Bluetooth and USB connectivity), stop at a public computer to check e-mail or urge friends to read their blogs.

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 about six years on the streets before recently being placed in a city housing program. 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. When you're living in a shelter or sleeping on the streets, it's your last line of communication with the world."

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

When Laura Zeilinger, deputy director of program operations for the D.C. Department of Human Services, conducted housing assessments of a couple of thousand people living on city streets last summer, she was surprised by how many gave her cellphone numbers and e-mail addresses.

"Phones are really a lifeline for many people," said Adam Rocap, director of social services at Miriam's Kitchen, a nonprofit drop-in center for the homeless. During a string of attacks against homeless people sleeping downtown in the fall, two victims called 911 for help after they were assaulted, he said.

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.

But the technology is advancing so quickly that a simple cellphone is fairly cheap. At the Communication Connection, a store at Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW, Donald Camp sells plenty of pay-as-you-go phones for less than $30.

The $29.95 Samsung A500 comes with 200 minutes. The H2O Wireless is $20 with 200 free minutes. There is no bill to pay. Once the minutes are gone, owners can return to the store and add time for about 10 cents a minute.

"Sometimes, they pay [for minutes] with cups of coins," Camp said.

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