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You cannot help people if you can’t reach them.
That’s something social service providers that assist people attempting to exit homelessness have seen time and time again. They will get a client on the waiting list for housing, which has had a backlog due to limited housing supply. Time will pass. Housing will eventually open up. But the nonprofit has no way of getting ahold of the client, who in addition to experiencing homelessness doesn’t have consistent access to a cellphone.
But a new program launched Thursday may help.
The Las Vegas-Clark County Library District partnered with the Nevada Homeless Alliance and the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth to begin handing out 380 phones to clients – a move they say will help eliminate some of the barriers faced by those experiencing or at risk of homelessness. The $200,000 program, called the Cell Phone Lending Program, is being funded by the American Rescue Plan Act.
Kelvin Watson, the executive director for the library district, said the program provides people with unlimited data for internet use, texts and calls for the next 18 months. Each phone comes loaded with contact information for service providers.
“The library district has identified resources in the community and each phone is preloaded with contacts and weblinks to services,” Watson said. “Resource categories include care, education, food, health, housing, legal, money and work. This is access and it now exists at your fingertips.”
While some organizations already provide clients experiencing homelessness with cell phones, oftentimes phones come with restricted plans and limited texting capabilities.
“I think it’s important that these individuals don’t have to worry, ‘oh, I only had 250 minutes’ or ‘oh I need to go to McDonalds and use their WiFi,’” said Catrina Grigsby-Thedford, executive director for the Nevada Homeless Alliance.
When left with the choice between paying for food or paying for cellphone minutes, young people experiencing homelessness will often choose their cellphone, said Arash Ghafoori, executive director for the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth.
“A cellphone represents not only access to any remaining family or social linkage they have but also represents the opportunity to seek out, find, learn more about and eventually access services that could help them navigate the homelessness they are experiencing,” he said.
Ghafoori said 50 of the phones will be for youth experiencing homelessness.
“We reached out to people who come to our drop-in center who may not be part of our housing program but need a cellphone so we can get ahold of them or they can get ahold of us,” he said, “or they can call and check on the status of their housing application or be able to tell an employer ‘here is my number and you can get in touch with me to set up an interview,’”
Grigsby-Thedford has reached out to case managers to identify other recipients of the program, which includes those currently living on the streets along with low-income residents severely at-risk of homelessness who live paycheck to paycheck.
She has researched the benefits of giving free phones to those experiencing homelessness, something other communities have provided, and found it leads to better health outcomes.
“There is a lot of research from medical providers about how health outcomes are better because people are able to get that phone call to remind them they have an appointment,” Grigsby-Thedford said. “I met a lot of individuals who used to do counseling or therapy in person, and when covid hit they stopped because they didn’t have a phone and weren’t able to access zoom.”
But in almost every aspect of life, she added, a phone is needed.
That includes job searching, to fill out an application or potentially receive an interview from a potential employer, Grigsby-Thedford said.
“With access to communication – cell phone, text, internet – individuals are able to call in to check where they are at on the housing list, find out where the closest shelter is, where the food banks are,” she said. “They are able to get on social media and maybe reconnect with families. They can access telehealth. Individuals can go in and check on their documents.This helps with everything that helps individuals have a better quality of life.”
U.S. Rep. Susie Lee, who attended the kickoff for the pilot, applauded the groups for using federal relief dollars to implement the program.
“It’s one thing to get funding and it’s another thing to have partners who identify the needs in this community, identify how we have a housing crisis and our homeless population is at the forefront of needs, and to get a program like this off the ground and the devices into your hands,” she said.
She added the program wasn’t the first time ARPA funds were used to address homelessness and said federal relief dollars are being used to address the housing crisis.
Nevada lawmakers recently approved $250 million of ARPA funds to address the affordable housing shortage. It’s the first of $500 million in ARPA dollars Gov. Steve Sisolak has pledged to help build multi-family housing developments, preserve existing affordable housing, increase home ownership and aid with land acquisition.
“We all believe that housing is an essential right and that no one should be on the streets,” Lee said.
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