Believe it or not, this question puzzles many housed people. In fact, some are more than puzzled — they are angry, indignant, scornful, and totally clueless.

Jeremy Reynalds, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of Albuquerque’s Joy Junction Inc., the largest family shelter in the state of New Mexico. He asked some housed people how they felt about seeing a cell phone in the hand of a person experiencing homelessness.

One respondent said that it’s fine, as long as the phone is only used for essential communication. (Maybe that should be added to the list of violations that the police check for. No open containers; no more than one trash can full of possessions; and no non-essential cell phone use.)

An example of a very unreasonable response was, “If you can afford an iPhone, you can afford food.” Several questions come to mind.

How was this lady so sure that what she saw in a homeless man’s hand was an iPhone? There are many brands of cell phones, in a wide variety of price ranges, depending on the instrument itself and the usage plan.

And even the classy iPhone is sold at a discount in used and/or refurbished condition. Or maybe what the guy had was a cheap, disposable, no-contract phone. Maybe it was a free Lifeline service phone (aka Obama phone).

Many factors

It’s helpful to remember that just because a person has friends or family, that doesn’t mean living quarters are automatically available. There can be a hundred reasons why even the most compassionate, caring relative or friend can’t offer a place to stay. But maybe some supporter, unable to offer more substantial help, decided to spring for a cell phone. Why should anyone begrudge that?

Or maybe the person recently became homeless through some catastrophe, and has lost everything else of value. Even if it is the latest, greatest iPhone, can he really be expected to sell such a useful item for the price of a few meals?

Many reasons

When Reynalds asked Joy Junction residents and homeless Facebook friends why they have cell phones, the most frequently mentioned reasons were potential work, family connections, and possible emergencies. When children go to public school, a parent needs to be reachable in case of sickness or misbehavior. If a grownup winds up in the hospital, a family member or pastor needs to be called.

Medical appointments need to be made and confirmed. A person needs to be reachable, because getting to an appointment can be difficult for a homeless person, especially with no car. To make a heroic effort to be someplace, and find that the doctor or agency cancelled the appointment, can be crushing.

A phone helps with prescription renewal. It lets a person be free from an anxious spouse for a few hours, with conversational reassurance available. It lets a person check the weather report, to know whether it’s worth fighting for a shelter bed on a particular night.

A phone can mean everything, especially if it does more than simply make and receive calls. It can function as an alarm clock and a calendar to keep track of appointments and deadlines. With the Internet, a person can find information about available services, along with locations, hours, and requirements.

Craigslist and other “classified ad” applications can help find housing and odd jobs. Freecycle can help find needed items.

A woman spoke of using her phone to read the Bible. A man wrote:

When I became homeless, the first thing I did was sell my guitar and buy the cheapest Android phone possible. I viewed it like going into battle; wanted to set up communications right away.

This whole debate is reminiscent of the old saying, “Give a man a fish, food for a day; teach a man to fish, food for a lifetime.” Possession of a mobile phone is the metaphorical equivalent of knowing how to fish, because this one device could potentially provide “food for a lifetime.” In fact, Jeremy Reynalds called the cell phone “the first tool necessary toward helping them get back on their feet.”

BONUS QUOTE from Ace Backwords:

You don’t have a bathroom, or a bathroom mirror, and rarely see how you look during the course of the day…

It’s also sort of existential. As in: “Who the hell IS that guy?” and “What does it mean to be a human being alive on planet earth amidst an infinite universe while staring at a photo of one’s face in a cellphone?”


Source: “How Do You Feel when You see the Homeless With a Cell Phone?,”, undated
Source: “Face Bookwords,”, 11/03/12
Image by Ace Backwords