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Are mobile phones a lifeline for homeless people? Assuredly they are. Homeless people use mobile phones to break their isolation, find food and shelter, and connect with the people they care about.
The Mobile4All project also sees mobile phones as a key to open the door to recovery and self-sufficiency.
Just like any single thing, mobile phones are a help, but not a cure for homelessness. Some may argue that housing first is a stronger intervention against homelessness.
However, the San Jose-based nonprofit, Community Technology Alliance (CTA), had a hunch that cellphones might be a surprisingly good place to start getting employment and becoming self-sufficient.
Mobile4All is the result of two years of research and effort by CTA. We have been following this project with interest.
Here are the essential findings from CTA's research:
The Mobile4All pilot project launched on October 31 of this year. Fifty Silicon Valley participants received a new Google Nexus 5 smartphone, compliments of Google, and subsidized phone service via BetterWorld Wireless. All participants are homeless or extremely low-income and are actively searching for employment.
The project also provides specialized customer service and case management oriented toward plenty of help in landing a job. Participants agree to attend a training, complete surveys, provide feedback, and participate in Downtown Streets and other work-first programs that bring unemployed people in the U.S. into the workplace.
Participants pay their own monthly bills as an investment in their recovery. Currently the data plans cost $40, but Mobile4All wants to get that down to $25 per month by going with a pay-what-you-use model.
One key innovation in Mobile4All is the inclusion of "Safety Net" wireless service. Safety Net wireless service means that if someone cannot pay for service for some reason, the person's phone will not be cut off — the person can keep his or her number, access voicemail, and call key contacts like a case manager or a family member. CTA sees this as one of the unique and necessary elements of the project.
CTA is also working on ways to make it easier for clients to make their monthly payments. Many of them don't have bank accounts or credit cards. CTA will try using apps like Pay Near Me that allows people to pay in cash at a convenience store.
Mobile4All is also training participants to maximize their use of free Wi-Fi. Betterworld Wireless co-founder and chief impact officer Amy Tucker mentioned that the training encourages participants to utilize free Wi-Fi that is available at their local public libraries.
Local university students are even working on an app to make connecting to Wi-Fi simpler.
In chatting with Mobile4All project manager Allan Baez, I found that the first training has already revealed some surprises:
After four weeks of the pilot, only one phone has been stolen, and no one has had problems paying the monthly bill.
Mobile4All has a $50,000 Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign going called Homelessness Ends with Me. Its goal is to provide service to 150 homeless and extremely low-income adults for a six-month pilot. The pilot's objectives are to create train-the-trainer materials, establish sustainable pricing, and properly measure the program's impact.
If all goes well, Mobile4All would like to scale the program to more communities in California and across the U.S.
TechSoup donor partner BetterWorld Wireless is very involved with this program.
Amy Tucker of BetterWorld Wireless says:
"It is programs like Mobile4All that BetterWorld was made for — we love applying mobile to bridge the digital divide, and it's especially rewarding making an impact close to home."
BetterWorld is providing discounted data service and dedicated customer support for program participants. BetterWorld also crafted the Safety Net Services for the project and is active on the ground with pilot support and training. Amy said, "We believe we're the first to provide this in the nation and would love to see the program scale."
For more information on Mobile4All's bold experiment to use mobile phones as a key to open the door for homeless recovery and self-sufficiency, visit the program's main information page. You can also learn more about BetterWorld Wireless' "mobile with a mission."
Do you have some experience with homeless interventions that are working? Please comment below.
Images 1 through 5 and video: Community Technology Alliance
Image 6: BetterWorld Wireless
My non-profit represents families involved in California's child welfare system. Is there a way we could possibly access a service like this for our families? It would impact foster children and their families in very much the ways you describe here and then some. Please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks, David