As Payphones Disappear, So Does a Lifeline for Homeless People

By RAECHAL LEONE, Maryland Newsline

WASHINGTON - One of the worst parts of being homeless is the loneliness, said David Pirtle, who slept many nights on Baltimore's waterfront and Washington's streets.

Homeless for more than two years, Pirtle combated the isolation by taking quarters people threw into a fountain at the National Museum of African Art in Washington and dropping them into a payphone to call family in Ohio.

Pirtle, 33, now has a home and a cell phone. But the payphones he once relied on to connect with the world are becoming harder to find for those still on the street.

"Everyone who's in the middle class thinks, 'Oh, no one uses pay phones anymore.' But not everyone is in the middle class," said Tracey Timpanaro, who publishes the magazine for the American Public Communications Council, a trade association for payphone service providers.

Without payphones, many homeless must look elsewhere, such as cell phones and e-mail, to connect with family, reach potential employers, contact assistance providers and others.

The Federal Communications Commission reported 24,784 payphones in Maryland in March 2006, down 12,999 phones, or 34 percent, from five years earlier. Nationally, payphones went from about 1.9 million to about 1 million during the same time, FCC data shows.

Meanwhile, the FCC said wireless telephone subscribers almost doubled, from 114 million in 2001 to 217.4 million in 2006.

The cell-phone explosion is a major reason payphones are dying, said Mason Harris, president of the Atlantic Payphone Association.

With payphones eking out smaller revenues, providers like the ones Harris' organization represents struggle to make a profit. When they don't, the payphones go.

"Unfortunately, I do think that the numbers are going to continue to decrease," said Harris, who is also president of Robin Technologies in Rockville.

The homeless do have other options, including free use of phones at many shelters. But Pirtle said it can be a problem for shelter residents looking for work, when an employer calls and is greeted with the name of a shelter.

"The prospective employer is just going to hang up the phone. They're not going to leave a message," he said.

And shelter residents often have to share a line with dozens of others. The 50 people at Community Vision's overnight shelter in downtown Silver Spring must sign up for turns on the phone, said facility manager Shena McFadden.

She estimates about 20 people at the shelter have cell phones. But even they use the shelter phone when they can, to save costly cell-phone minutes.

Most homeless people with cell phones have pay-as-you-go plans, said Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. They often do not have the credit history or identification needed for a less-costly contract plan, he said.

Stoops called cell phones "a great equalizer" for his homeless friends who have them.

"You can hide your homelessness status by having a voicemail account or a cell phone or an e-mail address, and no one knows that you're living in a doorway in downtown Baltimore or downtown Washington," he said.

Pirtle, who works as a speaker for Stoops' organization, has had a cell phone since summer. He uses a pay-as-you-go plan.

Such plans tend to cost more per minute. Verizon Wireless customers who sign a two-year contract can get 450 minutes a month for $39.99, said company spokeswoman Sherri Cunningham, a cost of less than 1 cent per minute. Pay-as-you-go customers pay 2 to 10 cents a minute, plus an access fee of 99 cents to $2.99 each day they use their phones, she said.

The homeless without cell phones sometimes pay homeless people who do own them for their use, said Eric Sheptock of Washington, who has been homeless for most of the last 14 years.

He owns a cell phone, which Pirtle gave him after the two helped start the Washington nonprofit Until We're Home, Sheptock said. But it has been off for six months, because Sheptock cannot afford to pay for service. He usually heads to the nearest Metro station for a payphone when he needs to make a call.

"Homeless people who don't use the phone much throughout most of the year will want to use it at this time of year to call many family members and relatives," he wrote in a Thanksgiving week e-mail.

E-mail is how Sheptock, 38, communicates most of the time. He spends about three hours a day, four to six days a week, on e-mail at public library computers.

Some shelters also offer Internet access: At Community Vision, residents seeking work can sign up for a turn on one of seven shelter computers, McFadden said.

Even with all the time he spends online, however, Sheptock did not know about free software, like Skype, that lets users make free calls over the Internet. "I only learned to do e-mail a year ago this month," he wrote.

He did not know about Community Voice Mail, either. The national program provides free voicemail boxes to "people without phones seeking jobs, housing, healthcare or safety," according to its Washington affiliate's Web site.

Clients record a personal greeting, get a phone number to give out and a code to check messages. They cannot make calls from the number, but callers will not hear that a phone is out of service or that the call is going to a shelter.

With payphones scarce or not working, however, some clients have had to find other ways to check their voicemail, said Stacy Holmes, program director in Community Voice Mail's national headquarters.

"We've heard time and time again from our clients it helps them break out of that sense of isolation," Holmes said.

Pirtle, who lost touch with his family for a while when he was homeless, agreed. The sense of not having any connection to the world was more than disheartening, it was discouraging, he said.

"It's one more barrier to getting yourself off the streets," he said.

-- Distributed by Capital News Service.

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