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Cellphones can be lifelines for poor

Cellphones can be lifelines for poor

In a world that revolves around quick communication, cellphones have become an essential tool for mu
Cellphones can be lifelines for poor
"Anna" uses her cell phone in the SICM Food Pantry on Albany Street recently.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

Yusuf Criss credits his cell phone with helping him to land a job.

The 20-year-old Schenectady resident, who struggles with poverty, purchased an inexpensive TracFone with prepaid minutes as an alternative to a landline, which would have cost him more.

“The Boys and Girls Club contacted me through my cellphone, and we set up an interview,” he recounted.

After the interview, he got a second call from the Boys and Girls Club, this one to offer him a job as a gym specialist.

“That callback — the job — relieved some of that [financial] struggle,” he said.

In a world that revolves around quick communication, cellphones have become an essential tool for much of the population. They can be pricey, but inexpensive options exist. There are also programs that provide free phones to those who struggle with poverty.

Government-supported providers, including Assurance Wireless, SafeLink Wireless and Access Wireless, offer free cellphones and a set amount of free monthly minutes for calls and texts for those who meet eligibility requirements.

TracFones, available from local retailers, have no monthly payment plan. Owners can purchase minutes as needed, or when they can afford to. And the phones cost as little as $10 for a basic model and around $60 for a smartphone, which offers Internet access.

Many uses

Representatives from local human service agencies said there are many reasons having a cellphone is important for those who live in poverty. For a child who has to ride a city bus alone, it can be a way to keep safe. For a job hunter, it can be a means of communicating with potential employers. For someone who is homeless, it can be a way to stay connected with family, friends, service providers and potential employers. And for some people, it can simply serve as a method of entertainment.

Cellphones are necessary to navigate today’s society and prepare for the professional world, said Damonni Farley, AmeriCorps specialist for YouthBuild Schenectady, a program that helps young adults earn a GED while getting paid to build affordable housing.

“A cellphone is a way for a potential employer to contact you, a way for you to follow up on leads and just kind of stay connected to the people around you,” he explained.

Cellphones have also become a necessity in many jobs and sometimes are paid for by employers.

People living in poverty tend to move frequently, making a landline less practical. Sometimes home is a hotel or shelter, where a “home phone” is not an option.

Cellphones can be more economical, as well as easier to obtain and maintain, than a landline, noted Chari Jones, director of employment services for the Schenectady Community Action Program, which offers a variety of programs to the needy.

“It’s a big process to set up [a landline]. You have to make monthly payments. If you don’t, and you lose the landline, it’s a big process. And you can’t take the landline with you” if you move, she explained.

A monthly phone bill can also teach money management skills, said Alayna Barber, transitional living coordinator for the Northeast Parent and Child Society. Barber, who works with at-risk teenagers, said cellphones are also helpful to kids looking for jobs.

“If a youth is homeless, how are they going to get a job nowadays? Everything is Internet-based, so [a cellphone ] gives a lot of services and resources to people in their hand, at the moment,” she said.

Staying connected

Cellphones are often an important link for people who work multiple jobs and need to stay in touch with children, noted Shelly Ford, deputy director of the Schenectady Inner City Ministry’s food program. Often, those who rely on public transportation to get to jobs spend hours each day commuting.

“With a cellphone, as opposed to a landline, that gives you the flexibility during these excessive [travel] times that those of us with cars or other amenities don’t have to worry about,” said Keith Houghton, director of housing and community services for SCAP.

People served by SCAP often use cellphones to find housing, get employment, communicate with an employer and contact the Department of Social Services. Clients who don’t have the luxury of a permanent home might also use their cellphone as a photo album and a place to store vital contact information, Farley noted.

Smartphones can also double as computers, TVs, radios and gaming systems. They can also offer a welcome escape, said Michael Saccocio, executive director for the City Mission of Schenectady.

“For folks who are really in hard lives, it can be a form of entertainment, and I think it’s easy to discount how important that is. We all need getaways. For some, it may be being able to get away on vacation. It may be a garden. A lot of folks don’t have access to that, and there is no form of entertainment, so these phones can be that,” he explained.

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