PUC set to approve free cell phones for homeless

December 10, 2012 6:18:34 PM PST
Something that most of us take for granted will soon become available to just about everyone in California -- cellphones and cellphone service. The California Public Utilities Commission is ready to sign off on a lifeline plan.

Can you imagine life without your cell phone? It's reality for many low income people. Or, like Teresa Piccirillo, they're forced to make sacrifices.

"I've had to go short on my food," she said.

Now a federally-funded lifeline program is about to launch in California. It will offer cellphones, for an initial, and hopefully refundable, $20 fee, users will then get 250 free minutes and 250 free text messages each month.

Jennifer Friedenbach with the Coalition on Homelessness believes the program will transform tens of thousands of lives.

"It's so huge if you're living outside you can dial 9-1-1 in the middle of the night; if you need to get in touch with your loved ones, you have a phone, if you're trying to get in touch with a potential employer," Friedenbach said.

Bevan Dufty, the director of San Francisco's homeless programs says it's been a struggle for years to get the CPUC to sign off on the program. It's already in 36 states, operated by Assurance Wireless, a subsidiary of Sprint.

"You're putting people into the mainstream, that's the thing," Dufty said. "So many people who are chronically homeless or low income and struggling are basically on the margins and disconnected."

Landline home phone usage has plunged 43 percent in California between 2000 and 2010, while cellphone subscriptions skyrocketed 123 percent.

That staff at the PUC has approved the plan, but details need to be worked out before the plan is put into place, probably in about a month.

The program is a state-wide program. Participants have to be making less than $15,000 per year.


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