California's homeless soon will have easier access to one of society's modern conveniences: the cell phone.
The federal Lifeline program, which provides affordable land-line and cell phone service to the poor, has expanded its serv-ice to include the homeless.
The expansion, approved last week by the California Public Utilities Commission, undoubtedly will be controversial, officials acknowledged. But backers said they believe it will improve the quality of life for millions of Californians.
"In this day and age, having access to communications is not a luxury," said Jayne Wallace, whose company, Assurance Wireless, will organize phone distribution in the state. "Having a cell phone can make a huge difference in the lives of many people."
Assurance Wireless is an arm of the telephone company Sprint.
The logistics of how and when cell phones will be distributed have not been worked out, but the program could be in place as early as the first of the year.
That was good news Friday for the homeless men and women eating lunch at The Salvation Army's Modesto Citadel Corps. They could use the cell phones to stay in touch with family, access services, find work and stay safe.
"If you can't buddy up, people see you as a single woman on the streets, you're a victim," said Lisa Pajarillo, 43, as she finished her lunch of pizza, green beans, chili and cling peaches.
Ken Hopper, 45, said he would feel safer if he had a cell phone.
"I sleep out on the streets," he said. "If I had a phone, then I could access help. That's one of the main reasons to have a phone."
Both said a cell phone would make it easier to stay in touch with family.
"When you're out here," Pajarillo said, "
you lose contact."
Pajarillo and Hopper said they now use the phones at hospitals, social service agencies and other organizations when they need to make a call.
Brad Wilson, Modesto Gospel Mission's development director, said he has mixed feelings about the program.
He acknowledged that cell phones are a necessity now that pay phones have all but disappeared from the landscape. But he called giving cell phones to the homeless "one more silly Band-Aid from Uncle Sam" in light of the more pressing needs of the homeless that go unaddressed.
California has helped pay phone bills for poor people since 1985 through the Lifeline program and serves about 1.5 million people.
Lifeline is funded through contributions by telephone companies to the Universal Service Fund. Companies can recoup part of their contributions through fees to paying customers.
Several months ago, the Federal Communications Commission changed the Lifeline program to include poor people living in temporary shelters, such as homeless shelters, those who don't have permanent addresses and those living in group housing, such as nursing homes, said Jack Pflanz, an Alliance spokesman.
Wallace said her company is considering various options for handing out phones, including working with nonprofit groups, social service agencies and retailers.
Participants might have to pay $20 for their phones when they apply for the program but will receive refunds if they are deemed eligible, she said.
Those who qualify will get basic cell phones, plus 250 voice minutes and 250 text messages per month. Participants who want more minutes and messages can pay for them.
Eligibility will last for a year, after which it will be reviewed.
For information about the federal Lifeline program, go to www.assurancewireless.com.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2316.