It's a sunny, late summer day and Alan Holliday, a 43-year-old homeless man, is enjoying the mild weather while playing an "Age of Empires" computer video game at a tiny "pocket" park in downtown Ukiah.
The shrub-enclosed parklet, just big enough for three picnic tables, has become a regular hangout for homeless people lucky enough to own cellphones and computers, devices that nationwide are increasingly helping the homeless connect with family, friends, medical care providers and jobs.
The park, with its adjacent electric car charging station, gives Holliday and others an opportunity to recharge their batteries without the rules and other constraints associated with indoor facilities such as the library. City officials estimate the electrical usage adds up to just pennies a year.
"It's a place I can relax," said Holliday, who has a 1990s-era Dell notebook computer that was given to him and that he guards carefully. He said he had a cellphone but it was stolen several months ago when he was robbed and beaten while staying in Pennsylvania seeking medical care for a back injury.
Across the table, a man who calls himself "Ogre" listens to a narration of the fantasy novel series "Wheel of Time" on his netbook while his dog, Sammie, curls up under one of the park benches.
"I'm a cigarette smoker," he says, explaining why he prefers the park over indoor facilities. The park also is frequented by smokers from nearby office buildings.
If they want Internet access, the men head to any number of places with free wireless access, including the library, McDonald's, Starbucks and Safeway, they said.
Homeless people increasingly are availing themselves of technology. Free or discounted phones are available to low-income residents in most states. SafeLink provides service in 33 states. California's program is Reachout Wireless. It's part of the federal Lifeline program.
Holliday has been promised a replacement phone by an acquaintance but may explore the low-cost program if that falls through. He pays for the usage from his disability checks.
Advocates of the low cost programs say they provide a lifeline that can keep the homeless from becoming even more marginalized.
Being reachable by phone, email and even regular mail is crucial for those seeking jobs and medical care and is important to averting isolation, said Carrie Brigham, interim director of the Plowshares Peace and Justice Center, which provides meals and a place to receive phone messages, mail and prescriptions.
"We're all human beings. We want validation from loved ones," she said.
Holliday is very social. He greets the other regulars at the park as they arrive and asks how they're doing. When he had a phone, he said most of his calls were from friends seeking his advice and counseling. He knows a lot of people because he was born and raised in the Ukiah area, he said.
"I'm sixth-generation Ukiah," he said proudly.
His connections in the community, including his church, help him find the occasional odd job, he said. Holliday also stays current on local news and politics and has many opinions he's more than willing to share.
Brigham estimated only about 1 percent of the people who eat at Plowshares currently have cellphones. But there's a larger need, she said. Plowshares receives about 30 phone messages a day for guests. Some are from worried family members who want to help them, Brigham said.