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St. Paul nonprofit offers mobile phones to homeless job-seekers

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Could mobile phones help the homeless find permanent shelter?

A St. Paul nonprofit started distributing cell phones last month to homeless residents. It's part of a small pilot program to show how cell phones can help people in transition find jobs and permanent housing, as well as stay better connected with family, friends and agencies.

"There's just no way to survive in this world without a phone. It really puts people further out of the mainstream than they are already," says Marcy Shapiro, executive director of Twin Cities Community Voice Mail.

The cell phone pilot is a first step toward updating the group's model for the wireless era. Twin Cities Community Voice Mail has offered free phone numbers and voice-mail accounts to low-income Minnesotans since 1994. Today, finding pay phones to retrieve and respond to voice-mails is increasingly difficult. Meanwhile, many employers and landlords expect people to be reachable on demand. Missed phone calls can mean missed opportunities.

The phones are being distributed by three partner agencies, the Dorothy Day Center, the St. Paul YWCA and Face to Face Safe Zone, which are offering the phones to participants in a federally funded Rapid Re-housing program. The cell phone plans are covered for six months, after which participants can keep the phone and number.

Similar experiments have been tried in Fort Worth, Tex., and Washington, D.C., but Shapiro believes the program is the first of its kind in Minnesota and among the first in the nation.

The trial is being funded through a $12,000 grant from the St. Paul Foundation that will cover the cost of 30 phones. Long-term funding is the major challenge. Voice mail accounts cost the organization about $10 per month per client, but cell phones cost three times that amount. After much research, the nonprofit settled on a $30 monthly plan from Virgin Mobile that includes 300 daytime and 1,000 night/weekend minutes.

"The money is what's really kept people from doing it," she says. "The need is there. It's really just about figuring out how to pay for it."

Source: Marcy Shapiro, Twin Cities Community Voice Mail
Writer: Dan Haugen
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