A Homeless Man and His BlackBerry

It's not loitering if you're on your phone.

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You could tell he was different the moment he walked in the coffee shop. It wasn’t his appearance. He looked presentable, if a little rough around the edges, clutching an old BlackBerry to his barrel chest. It was how he moved: warily, shoulders hunched over and eyes darting. The body language would read as suspicious, if not for the flicker of fear and apprehension in his eyes — as if he was scared of being noticed, vigilant to his surroundings and desperately trying to blend in at the same time.

He ordered a coffee, carefully counting out coins on the counter. He sat down at the table near me and pulled out his phone, just like nearly everyone else at the shop. He punched in a few numbers and began talking in a low voice, discreet but urgent. I was only a few seats away, but I couldn’t help but overhear his conversations.

Did someone have some cash jobs for him? Could he crash at a friend of a friend’s place? Could he get a ride out to the soup kitchen? After a few calls, it became clear: he was homeless. A homeless man with a smartphone.

Bert isn’t unsheltered. He bounces between emergency shelters and friends’ couches while he seeks temporary, cash-based day-laborer work. He refuses, in fact, to call himself homeless. “This is just a temporary condition,” he tells me more than once, after we struck up a conversation. Over and over again, he said he would get himself out of “this tight spot,” though he was vague about how long he’d been in it and how he got there. He made it clear: he hadn’t given up.

It wasn’t easy to engage him in conversation. When I first asked how he liked his BlackBerry, he looked at me like I was crazy. Later, he chalked up his guarded nature to the fact that he often doesn’t have casual conversations anymore. Most people, he said, tend to avoid him once they realize he is poor and transient. “You can’t hide it, being poor,” he said.

He made a joke about people acting as if poverty was an infectious disease. They give him a wide berth and pretend he’s not there. “I can go whole days without people not even looking at me,” he said. “And when they do, it often means they’re sizing you up, wondering if they need to kick you out or something.” The result, he said, is a sense of exile, from any feeling of belonging you have to the human race.

His phone, then, functions as an important conduit. On the surface, it’s his most important, practical tool. He can call places for work with it. He can call up shelters and other social services to see what’s available. He calls public transportation to find out which bus lines are running and check out schedules.

E-mail and text is especially important. He can reach out to friends to see if he can crash with them for a night or two, especially if the weather is rough. But he has to be careful. “You don’t want to impose,” he said. “You can’t exhaust your friends. Otherwise they’ll get tired of helping you, thinking, ‘Why are you still struggling?'” The hidden worry is that you’ll never leave.

Ironically, all this is easier to manage over text and e-mail than the phone. “You don’t have to worry about sounding upbeat and confident all the time,” he said. No one wants to help out the hopeless, and sometimes it’s not really so easy to disguise the worry and anxiety from your voice.

Slippery Slopes

Despite nearly everyone owning a cell phone, we think of them as luxuries, especially as data plans approach $100 a month. The idea of a homeless man with an iPhone, but no job or roof over his head, is discomfiting, mostly because poverty is perhaps one of the last bastions of unexamined prejudice in the U.S. Few would argue that people of different races or genders shouldn’t own phones, but it’s still common to temper sympathy for the homeless or destitute if they have a phone.

Even the most progressive areas of the country can show a certain callousness to what poverty should look and feel like. In San Francisco, for example, city supervisor Malia Cohen sparked controversy when she posted a picture of a homeless man on Facebook, talking on a phone while huddled underneath a freeway overpass. “This kind of made me laugh,” she commented, which lead to an uproar and eventual removal of the picture. Ironically, California last month decided to expand their Lifeline program to give free phones and service to the homeless, recognizing the value of the devices for the disadvantage.

The reality is homelessness is a simple term for a complex sociological condition, affected by a mosaic of factors that interact and affect one another in often unexpected ways. Large-scale trends like unemployment combust with local factors, such as lack of affordable housing or services easily accessible and open to those in need. Add in volatile personal situations — like addiction, family violence, financial instability or simply being far from family — you have a slippery slope to stand upon.

The homeless themselves range from the “unsheltered” living on the streets to doubled-up families living in single-occupancy homes. That includes those in transitory housing or emergency shelters, as well as the famous 2004 case of a student at NYU who attended school while sleeping at the library and showering at the gym.

About 20 out of every 10,000 people are homeless, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Anyone without enough personal or social capital can get caught in the cycle, and it’s not easy to pull out, when you consider the tremendous shame and judgment they experience within themselves and from the world at large. But there’s one effective tool that can help. Yes, phones.

Keeping Up Appearances

On another level, Bert said his phone connects him to less tangible, but still important, resources. He knows people can reach him, no matter where he sleeps at night. He gets daily e-mails from an online ministry, with inspirational messages and passages from the Bible. Those keep up his spirit and faith and keep him going. He can read news on the browser, too. Ironically, his biggest criticism of BlackBerry is the browser: it’s slow and outdated and most websites won’t load on it anymore. He only gets a certain amount of time on the computer at the public library, so he often begins researching jobs and housing on his phone and makes a list of websites he wants to visit when he gets on a computer with a faster connection.

The phone also, in part, structures his day in an often chaotic life. He has an exhaustive list of places to charge his phone, and he makes sure to hit them at some point during the day. He’s careful about his power and data usage and carries his charger at all times, in one of the capacious pockets of his army jacket. “When I see a free outlet somewhere, I have to say, it feels like Christmas,” he said. Free Wi-Fi inspires the same feeling; he can save up his valuable data usage.

But the most valuable aspect about his phone, is simply that it makes him look like everyone else. “You won’t believe it,” he tells me, “but if I didn’t have my phone, I probably couldn’t just sit here and have my coffee and be talking to you. It gives me something I can do in public. It’s not loitering if I’m typing or talking on my phone.” Loitering, he said, is often a good excuse to kick the homeless out of a place. And a phone is a passport that lets him stay in places longer than he would otherwise.

“You have to realize about my situation, most people don’t look beyond appearances,” he said. And if there’s one thing that matters when you’re homeless, according to Bert, it’s appearances. The minute the facade cracks and reveals his struggle, no one wants to be around you. No one wants to see it. People kick you out of places; they can tell you don’t belong anywhere.

In talking with Bert about not just phones, but his life in general, I realized he’s someone with a clear-eyed inventory of his scant resources. And he maximizes them with an eye to maintain appearances. Within that ruthless calculus, a phone was more important than his car, which he sold after the winter and didn’t need to sleep in as a last resort. And besides, he said, cops are on the lookout for people sleeping in cars — it’s not as practical as you think.

He used the car money to save for his phone bill, as well as a cheap $30-a-month membership to a local 24-hour gym in a central part of town, which gives him regular access to a hot shower and a place he can go late at night if he needs. He knows that sounds ludicrous, but says nothing marks a homeless man more than pungent body odor and an unclean appearance.

You could have all the iPhones in the world with you, he said, but if you don’t have a regular way to staying clean, that’s the most dangerous thing of all in a precarious situation. Nothing gets a homeless person kicked out faster, rejected from a job instantly or denied housing than looking dirty. He kept repeating, “Dirty ain’t dignified.” It’s often that dignity that Bert fights so hard to maintain, even at the expense of other things — but definitely not at the cost of a cell phone.

Through the Cracks

Bert’s ability to stay afloat and even keep up his personal dignity sheds light not only on how central phones are to our lives — no matter how poor you are — but also the world’s poverty of generosity and compassion. For every great example of helping others — such as the Reddit user who found a Chicago homeless man and delivered a care package to him — there are countless others who slip through the cracks, who walk in through doors of public places, face stares of cold evaluation and wonder if they’ll be kicked out.

Bert lives assuming that people’s generosity and compassion are limited to a certain point — and once you push past that point, you’re lost beyond all help. Despite his situation, he’s a proud man, but burdened with the “double consciousness” that marginalized people often have — able to see himself both through his eyes, and through the eyes of how others would judge him. And it was clear that the discrepancy between the two distressed him, and much of his survival strategy tried to bridge that gap.

I saw Bert only a few times after our first conversation, though we never did talk as in-depth. Sometimes he let me buy him a coffee refill, though he wanted to buy the first cup himself. But after a few months, I didn’t see Bert anymore, and I’m not really sure what happened to him.

Did he finally pull himself out of his “temporary condition,” as he called it? Or was he like countless others who slipped through the cracks into the shadowy netherworld of genuine destitution and poverty, becoming one of the “unsheltered”? I just don’t know. He may still have his own phone number, but he remains out of reach, lost somewhere in a world where social ties are tenuous connections, no matter how many devices we have.

This article was written by Kat Ascharya and originally appeared on Mobiledia.

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15 comments
burkie876
burkie876

This Blog is really eye opening to me. It pisses me off that people sometimes treat the homeless as if it s disease but I commend Bert for his effort and never giving up! 

s.m.l.
s.m.l.

Anyone who thinks a smartphone is inaccessible to homeless people, really should open their minds to possibilities. I myself am transient, I'm very fortunate that right now I have a friend and his family that have allowed me to stay. The worry is constant, however, that conditions and the situation are not permanent. I'm just blessed that I also have a job, I just don't make enough money to get housing. You can get a smart-phone for around thirty dollars; some people don't realize that. Carefully look around Ebay, you can find things like the Droid 2, or the HTC Touch Pro 2, which are a little outdated for around 30 dollars. You can also get cheap service from alternative carriers, like Hanacell if you don't use it very often/only for emergencies, or if you go with something a little more robust like Straight Talk or FamilyMobile by Walmart. I used all but straight talk, Hanvcell runs on the AT&T network and osts 9.99 initially but charges more if you use more than 9.99 worth of service; I ended up paying 60 per month of normal usage. FamilyMobile is 50 a month and runs on the T-Mobile network, and provides unlimited talk/text/web. You can also get additional lines for 35 a month, which is pretty cool! If you have friends that need service. . 


My first smart phone I got for free while living at a friend and her families house. Her father gave me two broken HTC Touch Pro 2's and said "Make it work, it's yours." I did, one had a good screen, bad board. One had a good board, busted screen.  It's not easy, but you can get by on stuff like this.  Also, many times, expect that you'll have to get the phone shipped, so you call a friend or family, maybe you can't stay there but maybe they'll be okay letting you ship something there, you just make sure to ask first, like he said, don't impose. Also, plan on the fact that many times, these GSM smart phones need to be SIM unlocked, which costs anywhere from five to twenty-five dollars, depending on what service you hunt down. So best case scenario, 30 for the phone, 5 for the sim unlock,  50 for the service plan that you don't need to worry about,  and a variable amount of time to get the phone working appropriately, and you've spent only about 85 dollars for a vital lifeline. 


You might wonder how else you can use this to help yourself? The cellphone is a line of credit, essentially, you are paying the bill and that can affect your credit score. You can give that some synchronicity with a secured credit card. PNC has the lowest starting amount on a secured credit card that I know of, at 250 to open it up. That money also acts as a "safety net" for the bank, so they're not just giving you money willie nillie, so if you can save up and shell out for that, you can bill-pay into your phone with the card, and pay the minimum on the card when you can get it together. If you can't. the bank has the deposit and you're cut loose, if you can, wonderful! You're building your credit.  Plus, the credit card can help you get cheaper goods online than you might find at local stores.  Between this and good will, this is how I find clothes for myself since I'm a big guy and can't typically afford big and tall.

AnnaHazelBarham
AnnaHazelBarham like.author.displayName 1 Like

Beautifully written and eye-opening. I had never thought of phones for the homeless. Thank you.

Segmation
Segmation like.author.displayName 1 Like

Perhaps your blog will help him and others? I hope so!

gcarlos7
gcarlos7 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Bert, I commend you for finding ways to keep up your spirit, I commend your friends for helping you. Use all that you have within to work, save, get a place, provide for yourself and for others you have met on your recent walk of life  

AllyRaymond
AllyRaymond like.author.displayName 1 Like

Situations could go south at any time.. Sometimes so quickly and you could find yourself in the same situation. Not possible, you say??? Think again... Many educated folks are on the streets..people who had great jobs, but have been outsourced. Retraining programs cut by the State, etc.. People that transition, come out, that are rejected by family and supposed friends. Lengthy gaps in unemployment, keep companies from rehiring good people....and list goes on. People need to survive..some actually wonder if they 'deserve' to! The gap between poor and rich continues to grow. So sad.

TinaAlexander
TinaAlexander

Sending prayers for this man. As a child i remember some of these feelings, but it's different because of the vulnerability. remember that to help those less fortunate is to do so unto Jesus himself. God bless you all who are in tough times.

ambrking
ambrking like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

He does sound like an upstanding man. I salute him for not giving up. Who would think to keep a phone when you are homeless? Bert understood its practicality and importance. Good for him and I wish that he found a job. Let this be a lesson for us.

castlesburning
castlesburning

From everything we learn about him in this article, Bert sounds like an upstanding man, very positive and resourceful, whom any employer or landlord would be glad to have. However - and this is rather glossed over - he does not provide a reason as to WHY he is in this situation in the first place. I'm not saying he has to give the world his life story, any more than any other person does. But I would imagine that by providing something, some small reason, he might even persuade more people to help him, as they would greater sympathize if they had some back story. But, though I hate to say it, I do admit to finding it a little suspicious that Bert wouldn't say anything at all about it. 

gccave
gccave

@castlesburning Most people would be quick to judge even his backstory. "Well if you'd done this or this, you wouldn't be in this position in the first place". There are so many reasons for homelessness these days. It's not a black and white issue anymore, and even though there are many government and NGO programs in place, it's incredibly easy for people to fall through the cracks.

anotherperson
anotherperson

Sometimes the back story is something as simplae as a lease not being renewed and not having the resources or credit to get into a new place. The longer you are in that situation the harder it is to get out.

heyronnie
heyronnie like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 4 Like

@castlesburning It seems that you'd rather not help this person.  That's okay.  Bert's not asking for your help.  But, why do you need a reason for why he's where he is? Is it to judge whether he is "legitimately homeless?" through no fault of his own? Let us realize that there are myriad reasons why a person or a family becomes homeless, but that should not preclude us from providing care and understanding.  To demand that someone explain their situation, when obviously he is doing his best and is not asking for help, is to be callous and may add humiliation to the daily burden he carries.

The author of this piece explains above that, "Anyone without enough personal or social capital can get caught in the cycle" which is difficult to break away from using only your own resources, and also mentions the overriding shame experienced by homeless people in our culture.  This alone would prevent anyone from disclosing the reasons for becoming homeless.

lindastewart14
lindastewart14

@heyronnie @castlesburning   well said, well said and thank you for caring about this man and many others suffering around him.  You have to protect yourself out there esp. women can be preyed upon if not careful.  Homelessness is a scary world.  I was homeless for 3 months, I know.