By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 23, 2009; A01
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.
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.
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.