Cellphones For the Homeless: Lifeline or Luxury?

When Alejandro Recinos first became homeless, he had no intention of applying for a free, government-funded cellphone.

He'd been employed as a communications engineer and relished in his work installing fiber optics across Los Angeles and beyond. He had a permanent address and no need for handouts.

But after an accident that he said wrecked the van he relied on to operate his business, he lost his work and his income. Within a year, he was living on the streets.

For a while, Recinos managed to make his $199-a-month cellphone payment. But before long, keeping up proved to be too much.

I finally swallowed my pride and decided to get one of those free phones. That changed my life.

Without a phone, Recinos, 50, had no way to easily schedule job interviews or keep track of doctor appointments. He saw himself slipping further away from the life he had — a life he was struggling to regain.

"I finally swallowed my pride and decided to get one of those free phones," he said. "That changed my life."

Now, the device Recinos keeps tucked in his pocket helps him meet those needs and others, like consulting bus schedules and checking the weather.

Recinos is just one of millions of low-income and homeless individuals around the nation who depend on Lifeline, a federal initiative launched by the Reagan Administration in 1985.

Initially limited to landline services, Lifeline was extended to cellphones in 2005, with states granted latitude to expand the program. Beginning in 2014, California began collecting a fee from all cellphone users in the state to cover the cost of purchasing and distributing free cellphones — known colloquially as "Obama phones" — to millions of low-income and homeless residents.

Jessica Essak, 36, lives in a tent on the Venice Beach Boardwalk.
She displays her six cell phones — four of which she received through Lifeline.

Molly Moen, who heads fundraising and communications for Chrysalis, an employment agency for the homeless in Los Angeles, said access to cell phones can significantly bolster job opportunities for her clients.

Alejandro Recinos, 50, said the Lifeline program has changed his life. While experiencing homelessness, he uses his cellphone to look up bus schedules, the weather, and to make calls for school.

In an email, Moen described one instance in which a client was working with a volunteer to apply for jobs online when his phone began to ring. One of the employers to whom he had just submitted an application was calling him to set up an interview.

"He went in for the interview later that week," Moen wrote. "He got the job."

But Lifeline, which is run at the federal level by the FCC, has come under scrutiny in recent years by some Republicans in Congress for wasteful spending.

In 2017, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found 5,500 duplicate beneficiaries, as well as 5,400 who had been dead for more than a year. These individuals accounted for roughly $1.2 million of wasted funds every year, according to GAO estimates.

In response, Ajit Pai, appointed commissioner of the FCC by President Barack Obama, and promoted to chairman by President Donald Trump in 2017, proposed cutting the program by 70%. That year, U.S. Rep. Austin Scott introduced legislation to eliminate Lifeline's cellphone program altogether.

Some critics of the program view the free cellphones as a luxury and an unnecessary financial burden on the government. Last summer, former Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz posted an Instagram photo of a homeless person who appeared to be streaming video on a cellphone. Several months earlier, Chaffetz, who is now a commentator for Fox TV, suggested low-income Americans should invest their money in healthcare rather than "getting that new iPhone that they just love."

In the spring, a contingent of nine Democratic U.S. senators led by Kamala Harris of California, and Bernie Sanders, Independent from Vermont, wrote in opposition to Pai's proposal, saying such a move would adversely affect eight million Americans.

As of 2017, California Lifeline covers over 2 million residents, and currently has a $428.8 million budget for the 2018/19 fiscal year. Cellphone users in California contribute to the program via a 4.75% service provider surcharge from major carriers such as Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. Customers can usually find the fee listed as "Lifeline" or "ULTS" (Universal Lifeline Telephone Service) on their cellphone bills. This surcharge ranges from approximately 10 to 40 cents per month.

In Los Angeles, getting a phone through Lifeline can be quick and easy. Most weekdays, Assurance, Safelink, and other Lifeline cell phone providers set up shop on a sidewalk near MacArthur Park, across the street from the LA County General Relief Office.

Daniel Bertolo, who works with Safelink, stood at the nearby street corner of 6th and Park View Street. Wearing a black tie and sunglasses, he asked a man waiting at the crosswalk, "Want a free phone today, bro?" With iPad in hand, Bertolo signed him up for the program and gave him his phone in about 15 minutes.

However, Bertolo explained that it isn't as easy for the homeless to apply for the program. Many applicants, he said, used the General Relief Office on 6th Street as their address — a practice he says the office has banned to reduce fraud.

Assurance Wireless employee Marina Merino (left) helps 22-year-old student Sahar Asefa apply to receive a free cellphone under the California Lifeline program.

Kelvin Joia, a California Lifeline manager, said there are ways homeless people can access the program without an address. "There's certain shelters where they register them through California Lifeline," Joia said. "They allow patrons to apply and use [that shelter's] address."

The phone given out by Safelink is called "Alcatel Raven," a small Android model with touch-screen capabilities and a monthly allotment of 2 gigabytes of data. By comparison in 2017, the average U.S. smartphone user with unlimited data used 31 gigabytes a month, according to the NPD Group, a private consulting company which provides consumer and retail data. All carriers through Lifeline offer unlimited calling and texting minutes.

Through a Wi-Fi connection, phones can surf the web without using any data at all. Some Lifeline recipients, like Recinos, don't worry about data usage. Many establishments, he says, like libraries and fast food restaurants, offer free Wi-Fi.

Can You Hear Me Now?

People experiencing homelessness voice their concerns about whether cellphones are viable assets for those trying to survive on the streets. Click on each portrait to hear from them.

Advocates for the homeless argue that, while phones are not the answer to every problem, when these free devices are deployed to their best advantage, they provide an essential means of communication that is often out of reach for the homeless but that most people take for granted.

Plans from Lifeline sponsored carriers can help the homeless catch up to the expanding world of cellphone coverage. 77% of Americans own a smartphone, and over half of adults aged 18-29 have used their smartphones to search for jobs.

Joel John Roberts, who heads Los Angeles People Assisting the Homeless, known as LA PATH, said equipping homeless people with cell phones has helped their organization's case managers keep in contact with them, but a bigger step to help them achieve independent living is attaining secure housing.

"I think like everybody else, the phones are good to stay connected with friends and family," Roberts said. "But if you have a home, it's easier to get a job, take a shower, have a place to wait for a response from an employer. For your dignity, to have a safe and secure place is better for your mental health."

A Lifeline for Misty

A day in the life of Misty Donovan involves carrying her entire home in her arms. She lugs bags with water, clothes, a tent, and most importantly, her cellphone. Today, her phone will guide not only her, but her baby on the way.

If the video doesn't play, please click here.

For Alejandro Recinos, having a free cellphone has meant the difference between feeling disconnected and being able to work toward his goals.

He spends his time studying at school or the library, where the internet can connect to his Lifeline phone. On a recent day, he arrived at the Central Library in Los Angeles dressed in polished boots and a light blue polo emblazoned with the logo of the nearby Associated Technical College, where Recinos made calls to firm up his plans to enroll and get recertified as a communications engineer.

"I really appreciate this program," Recinos said. "You just need to use it right."