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Low-cost cellphones, Internet access help keep North Coast homeless in touch

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.


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