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Homeless, not necessarily phone-less

BY SCOTT RAYNOR | OCTOBER 15, 2009 7:20 AM

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Joseph McKenna was never enticed by the Geico commercials promising up to 15 percent savings on car insurance for every 15-minute phone call.

“No way would I want to spend 15 minutes on a phone,” the 50-year-old said. “No effing way.”

In fact, McKenna even finds cell phones irritating.

And if he weren’t homeless, he probably wouldn’t own one — especially not his Samsung flip phone with “no bells and whistles.”

McKenna and others in Iowa City’s homeless population use cell phones as a lifeline to search for a job and stay in contact with friends and family.

Evan Smith, 45, who has been homeless for 15 years, said he estimates around 70 percent of the able-bodied homeless in Iowa City have cell phones.

“It is a necessity,” said Smith, one of the more than 8,000 homeless Iowans. “If you fill out an application, your ass is out if you don’t have a phone.”

Smith said his LG flip phone is worth the $30 for 300 minutes of use.

After years of drug addiction and begging for money, Smith works as a day laborer, taking calls on his cell phone for short-term job openings.

“With 30 bucks, you can make $600 to $800 a month extra,” Smith said. “It keeps me from needing food stamps, pan handling, or digging in Dumpsters.”

Some homeless charge their cell phones at the Iowa City Shelter House, said the facility program manager, Leon DeBoer. The devices are an essential asset for many, he said.

“Most folks are keeping them to maintain that contact so that they are maintaing friendships,” he said. “If you see some with a cell phone, you might think that they are running some sort of scam. But whether that is true on the whole, I don’t know.”

Cell-phone use among the homeless isn’t a phenomenon limited to Iowa City.

Neil Donovan, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said technology — including cell phones and the Internet — provide America’s homeless population with resources including employment tips and where to find nearby programs or shelters.

“That way the information is available when they need it,” he said. “They control the time when the information is available, instead of getting it from someone else. It is kind of an empowerment process.”

For McKenna, his phone has helped with the job search.

“It has been slower than I expected, but that doesn’t mean it is not going to happen,” he said.

But he is still a reluctant cell-phone user. He said he takes measures to ensure he isn’t like other cell-phone users — those who annoy others by talking loudly in public places.

“It has been of use to me, which doesn’t mean I love it,” McKenna said. “I don’t know if I’ll keep it when I find a job.”


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