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

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Given that each minute is hard-earned, there is a brisk economy to the way many calls are conducted. "It's 'Hello. How you doin'? Okay. Goodbye,' click. You don't get but a minute of my phone time," said McBride, who uses his phone primarily to set up face-to-face conversations, rather than chat his minutes away.

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Some get their phones from relatives who want to know they have a way of staying in contact. Ronald Collins-El, 45, got one from his nephew. While he stays at the homeless shelter on the campus of St. Elizabeths, he uses it to keep in touch with family members and to organize his numerous medical appointments, payments and bills.

Collins-El, whose toes were amputated, walks with crutches as he pushes a mop and bucket through the dining hall at Capitol Hill's Church of the Brethren.

"When I was married and housed, I had a cellphone," he said. "I still have a life even though I don't have a house."

Or take the case of Chris, 42, a recovering crack cocaine addict who asked that his last name not be used because he keeps his homelessness a secret from his employers.

Chris 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.

This time, he got a pay-as-you-go cellphone and gave his boss the number. "I live up near the Capitol -- give me a call anytime if you need extra hands," he told his employer, being vague about where he bedded down each night.

He received numerous calls to come in early or to work an extra shift. After less than a year on the job, he was promoted. "No one there knows I'm homeless," he said. "I would never have been able to do this without the cellphone."

Many employers ask for e-mail addresses. On most days at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown, people with backpacks and sleeping bags line up to use the public computers.

Chris Tonjes, director of information technology for D.C. public libraries, said an increasing number of people without home addresses are finding e-mail addresses to be a viable contact option.

Tonjes is about to launch a customized desktop application for the library's 560 public computers that links users to job boards, unemployment insurance sites, résumé templates and employment agencies.

Some just check e-mail, communicate with friends and family, and look for jobs. Others make their presence known on a grander scale.

"On the Clock with Eric Sheptock" is the blog where Sheptock chronicles his life on the street and criticizes the District's record on helping the homeless. Or there's "Better Believe Steve," the journal where Steve Thomas writes about his struggles with addiction and homelessness in Washington. Both are hosted at Streats.tv.

Most of the homeless blogs in the nation's capital are about advocacy and politics. In Florida, a homeless family journals its struggles.

But in California? Bloggers there go online to map Los Angeles' friendliest and most posh public restrooms, share tips for street hygiene and suggest ways to avoid chronic sunburns.


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