CITYWIDE — Homeless people and Californians who make less than $14,702 annually will qualify for a free cell phone and service plan under a decision by the California Public Utilities Commission that expands a federally-funded program to put phones in the hands of the state’s neediest residents.
The CPUC approved proposals by Assurance Wireless and Reach Out Wireless to provide cell phones with free plans that offer 250 minutes and 250 text messages per month to qualifying California residents.
Both carriers also offer plans costing $5, $20 or $30 per month that include extra minutes and services.
Assurance Wireless, a Virgin Mobile company, distributes the Kyocera Jax, although the phone model is based on availability, said Jack Pflanz, communications manager for Assurance Wireless.
The phones and service come from a program called Lifeline, a benefit supported by the federal government and paid for by the Universal Service Fund, which collects money from wireless companies. Some of the cost can be passed onto their customers.
According to the CPUC, California residents may qualify for the Lifeline program if enrolled in Medi-Cal or receive assistance through a variety of federal programs including Medicaid, Section 8 housing vouchers, food stamps, the National School Lunch Program or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
Based on enrollment in the food stamps program alone, as many as 4.1 million Californians could qualify for the service, Pflanz said.
John Maceri, executive director of OPCC, Santa Monica’s leading provider of homeless services, called the plan “fantastic.”
“A lot of homeless do have cell phones, but managing on limited incomes and managing payments for utilities is always a challenge,” Maceri said.
Previously, the California Lifeline program only covered landlines, which was useful when OPCC clients could be placed in apartments or other housing, but didn’t reach those still on the streets or living in a shelter.
Putting cheap and free phones in the hands of clients opens doors, Maceri said.
“We are a cell phone-driven culture now. Being able to reach people quickly is important,” he said. “Being able to reach people quickly to tell them units are available, to schedule an interview or tell them their applications are missing for housing, benefits or employment, all of those things are very helpful.”
Santa Monica recently completed a count of its homeless population with the help of over 250 community volunteers and city officials on Jan. 30. They found 780 homeless, an increase over the 769 counted the previous year. It is the third year in a row that Santa Monica has had an increase in its homeless count after years of decline.
There was a significant increase in homeless on the street — 264 to 316 — and an increase of 12 found in vehicles.
Only one person per household may qualify for Lifeline. The Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the program, acted in 2012 to reform the program with the expectation that it would save $2 billion over three years.
Those reforms included annual recertification requirements and the creation of a National Lifeline Accountability Database to prevent multiple carriers from carrying the same subscribers.
The program is initially rolling out in San Francisco, but residents of the Los Angeles area will have their applications processed soon, Pflanz said.