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Phones Are A Lifeline For Homeless Austinites. That's Especially True During COVID-19.

Ralph Lee, who has been chronically homeless for three years, received a pre-loaded flip-phone from the city last month.
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Ralph Lee, who has been chronically homeless for three years, received a pre-loaded flip-phone from the city last month.

Amy Price lives in red tape. She thrives in it. And she's been at it for 25 years.

Price works at Front Steps, which manages the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. A couple months back – before she was sheltered-in-place with her cats – she hatched a plan. A cowboy operation, she calls it, a grant application as blunt as it was simple.

"I actually wrote, 'This is not a very nuanced project. If you give me the money, I'm going to try to put phones in the hands of people who are experiencing homelessness.' I don't know how it'll go – I mean, I don't!" she says. "I know there's a need. I know they get broken or stolen or lost fairly often with our clients, and this is a huge issue."

That huge issue is something she deals with every day at the ARCH: Communication is key – for people trying to get out of homelessness and those who are helping them. You may think, compared to food and shelter, a phone is trivial, that it's a want rather than a need.

Price says that's wrong.

"It's a really important need. I think a lot of people say, 'Hey, I saw a homeless guy with a cellphone, I guess he doesn't really need my dollar.' It's like – listen – that is his lifeline," she says. "That is his lifeline to getting out of homelessness, to getting help while he's homeless."

Anything Helps

Think about how many times you've looked at your phone today. Chances are you've scrolled through social media, maybe called a loved one to see how they're holding up during the pandemic. Maybe you've ordered groceries or takeout. Then, maybe you checked social media again.

From a social standpoint, phones are our personal, pocket-bound frontline workers these days. But, like Price says, they're a lifeline if you're living outdoors.

"It's really been a real blessing."

They help people connect with mental health providers, with counselors, with housing coordination, with doctors, with live-saving prescriptions – things people experiencing homelessness need to survive.

Just ask Ralph Lee.

Lee has been homeless for about three years – chronically homeless, by the official metric. He's usually downtown near Sixth Street, where he panhandles with a sign that says, "Anything helps."

A couple weeks back, he got a phone from Austin's mental health authority, Integral Care, which has been passing out cheap phones pre-loaded with a direct line to its services – 400 of them, so far.

That phone helped Lee get to be where he was when KUT spoke with him – over the phone – last week: in front of Caritas, where he was meeting with his case manager to sign up for food stamps.

"I haven't had one recently," he says of his flip-phone. "I'm using it to help my meetings and stuff I need to take care of. It's really been a real blessing."

Lee says it has helped him connect with housing services and sign up for CommUnity Care's MAP program, which provides health insurance for low-income Austinites. It also helped him sign up for Social Security Disability Insurance – an often tedious process that requires a lot of back-and-forth that's prolonged without a direct line for call-backs and clarifications on paperwork.

If you're going to forge ahead without a phone, says Kim Caldwell, a public information specialist with the city, it's nearly impossible to get help.

"A lot of the services right now – to help people in the COVID-19 response – you have to make a call to get there," she says. "You have to set up an appointment."

Previously Uncharted

Phones are a necessity, but they only go so far. People still need vital resources – like food and hygiene products – during this pandemic, when a lot of providers have scaled back or are barely maintaining services. There's a lot of uncertainty.

Just over a month ago, Caldwell and a coworker came up with a plan to help folks like Lee and the folks who help him and other people experiencing homelessness.

Like a lot of collaborative work-from-home projects these days, it started with a Google Doc. It was an informal list of all the homeless services that were open with contact information, hours of operation, suggestions on how to get there – everything.

Caldwell and her coworker decided to put that information to use on the city's website. 

So far, about 4,200 people have visited the site, which maps out programs that have come online as a result of COVID-19 – programs offering weekly grocery drop-offs, restrooms, showers and hand-washing stations for those living outdoors. And, Caldwell says, 40% of the site's visitors have been on mobile devices.

But some people, like Lee, have flip-phones – or no phone at all – so the city's counting on neighbors who have smartphones to pass on information, like online maps. Unlike a flyer that may have old or incorrect information, the site is regularly updated – though, the city is passing out flyers, as well, just to cover their bases.

Caldwell says all these efforts – everything the city, Integral Care and Austin Public Health and others are doing – are intended to cut down on person-to-person interaction.

"The fewer in-person interactions you have, the safer it makes our entire community," she says.

A Silver Lining

Karen Dorrier works on the frontlines with the HOST team – a city-county partnership  that helps provide emergency medical and mental health care to those experiencing homelessness. They've been passing out phones like Lee's. If there's been any bright spot in this pandemic, she says, it's been that collaboration.

"I think it's almost like a silver lining – the food distribution, the bathrooms and handwashing locations," she says. "There's really strong relationships that have been developed with community partners."

Those relationships have benefited Price and the cowboy operation she pitched a while back. She says the city responded, telling her she didn't have to wait until July for her grant; it's been prioritized because of COVID-19.

"I've been doing this for 25 years. It just doesn't happen! The government doesn't do things like this. The government's a huge entity and they work the way they work," she says. "And to have a bunch of staff at a city office say, 'Whatever you need. Let's get this approved as fast as we can' – to accept my email that said this is going to be a cowboy operation, you know? It was so remarkable."

She says they can't get the phones fast enough, which will hopefully be in a few weeks – and she hopes to get as many as she can.

Lee says getting a phone was unexpected, and that it's given him an unexpected purpose as well: He's using it to help people connect with the HOST Team.

"They'd given it to me and said, 'Hey, keep in touch with us ... let us know what people need every day.' And it gave me a purpose to do something," he said. "And if anybody out there needs any help – and they see me out here – and they need to use this phone to get a hold of the [HOST Team], just come up to me and ask me. That's what it's for."

Of course, Lee says, he's washing his hands and using sanitizer – and wiping down his phone. Before hanging up last week, he said to be sure to let everyone know he's out here, if they need him.

It's like his sign says: Anything helps.

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

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Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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