Former Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz posted a photo of a homeless man playing video on a cellphone
A smartphone is less of a luxury than you might think.
Congressman-turned-talking head Jason Chaffetz is the target of heavy criticism on social media after posting an Instagram photo of a homeless person in Times Square supposedly streaming video off a smartphone. The ex-Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, a Utah Republican, is no stranger to controversy for remarks made about smartphone ownership. Earlier this year, he argued that Americans would be able to afford healthcare if they reconsidered purchasing iPhones, a comment that echoed past remarks made by Barack Obama, though it has been debunked.
Chaffetz’s post might be controversial, but the dissonance that comes from seeing someone ask for a quarter while handling a device worth a few hundred dollars is understandable. Still, given that there were 550,000 homeless people in America as of 2014, it’s a pretty rare sight. “The idea that [most] homeless people can afford the monthly charges is ridiculous,” Deborah Padgett, professor of social work at New York University, tells Moneyish. Padgett acknowledges that there might be a minority of panhandlers who are begging for change though they don’t really need it, but says that in 30 years working with the underprivileged, most homeless people with phones use cheaper so-called “dumb phones” that they buy minutes for at a local convenience store.
That said, some organizations are finding it useful to loan or give out smartphones to the indigent. Google and Vodafone for instance, have donated smartphones to the Mobile 4 All program run by the Santa Clara, Calif.-based homeless charity Community Technology Alliance. Access Wireless, a program supported by the Universal Service Fund, a small tax that most cellphone users pay on their monthly bill, provides low-income residents with a free phone and 500 MB of data each month. According to a 2011 study published in the “Journal of Urban Health,” 40% of homeless youth in Los Angeles have a phone that many of them use to talk with their case managers and apply for jobs.
And the opportunities afforded by data and an attached camera only enhance this. “They can keep track of important documents and appointments on their phones, take pictures of [job and housing] applications they have submitted, and call about job opportunities without revealing that they live in a shelter,” says Shelly Nortz, deputy executive director for Policy at the Coalition for the Homeless. “Advances in communication technology have helped our homeless neighbors survive displacement from their homes with greater dignity and the ability to stay in contact with their support systems.”
“In New York City, we don’t denigrate New Yorkers going through hard times—we uplift and offer a helping hand,” says a spokesperson for New York City’s Department of Homeless Services, noting that the city has a mobile app for food stamp applications. “For more and more low-income households who cannot afford computers, smart phones are often the only way to access the information and resources that will help them stabilize their lives,”
Indeed, numerous apps—which require a smartphone to operate on—have sprung up to meet the needs of the indigent. Texas charity OurCalling offers an eponymous app that provides details on resources like domestic violence shelters and medical care to the homeless. An Australian mobile website called AskIzzy gives them access to data such as public toilets and food vouchers; the service is sponsored by News Corp., which owns Moneyish. There’s also an annual hackathon organized by computer science students at Santa Clara University to build apps targeted at the impoverished and homeless.
“Organizations may need to stay in touch with people regarding their medication or have a housing application to let them know about,” says Padgett, co-author of “Housing First: Ending Homelessness, Changing Systems and Transforming Lives.” “If you can’t reach them, you can’t help them.”
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