“If it’s so hard to be homeless, how come they all have nicer phones than I do?”
If you work with the homeless, you hear this sentiment a lot. A lot.
Everyone who hates seeing their tax dollars go to the needy seems to think that this is the ultimate “gotcha”. How can that person possibly be homeless if they have a nice cell phone? How can homelessness really be so bad if you have an Android? How can social programs be underfunded when their clients have iPhones?
You want to know why the homeless have smartphones? There’s a couple of good reasons:
- It’s leftover from a previous, more stable life. Homeless people aren’t video game characters, they don’t just spawn on street corners, fully formed. Most people do not experience long-term homelessness – the average homeless person is on the streets for less than a month. These are people who used to have jobs, apartments, cars, etc, until some sort of catastrophe put them on the street. You might lose your apartment or car, but most people own their cellphone outright, and can hang onto it when something bad happens.
- It was given to them by a concerned family member or friend. Most homeless people do actually have non-homeless family members and friends who care about them. Their family might not be able to let that person live with them at the moment, due to addiction or mental health problems, but they still need a way to get in touch with that person and check in on them. Giving them a cellphone is the easiest way to do that.
- It was picked up second-hand. People upgrade to the newest device all the time, and when they do that, many of them will sell their old phones. It’s easy to find cheap, secondhand cellphones on the internet or in pawn shops, and they’re a valuable tool worth having.
- It was given out by a social services agency or charity. When you work with the homeless, getting in touch with them is one of the biggest challenges you face. You need to be able to get hold of them at a moment’s notice to let them know about appointments, openings in important programs, updates on applications, and all sorts of other crucial information. Instead of wasting hours and gas driving around looking for people the old-fashioned way, many social agencies just give out cheap phones to their clients, to make sure that they can always contact them.
- It doesn’t have a plan. Many people who see a homeless person on a cell phone assume that that person is also paying for a costly phone and data plan. That’s usually not the case. Many homeless people use pay-as-you-go phone minutes that they can top up whenever they happen to have the money. Even without any minutes, phones are valuable – free public wifi can be used to make phone calls, look up information and stay in contact with friends.
- It’s for emergencies. By federal law, even old, deactivated cell phones are able to place calls to 911. Sleeping rough is dangerous, and it never hurts to have a phone nearby, even if its only use is to call for help.
Cell phones are probably the single most useful tool any homeless person can have – you can use them to look for shelter openings, hunt for jobs, navigate transit, stay connected to friends, find resources and information, remember appointments, wake yourself up on time, call for help, and entertain yourself through long and boring days. They are an essential tool, not a luxury item, and it’s unfair to suggest that homeless people somehow aren’t suffering just because they have one.
Instead of asking why that homeless person has a phone, ask yourself why they don’t have a safe place to sleep tonight.