Needy San Francisco residents come out for free phones 

click to enlarge David Avila of Assurance Wireless, left, helps Dinorah Ceballos apply for a free phone at a Mission district event Thursday. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • David Avila of Assurance Wireless, left, helps Dinorah Ceballos apply for a free phone at a Mission district event Thursday.

With Social Security disability benefits as his only source of monthly income, Bill Shomer decided that he needed to live without a phone. The San Francisco resident could barely pay for food and public transportation, so something had to go.

“It got to the point where I was eating only two meals a day,” Shomer said. “I’ve been giving everything up; the phone was the last thing I was holding on to.”

Fortunately, Shomer received an opportunity to sign up for a free cellphone Thursday through the Assurance Wireless program, which held enrollment drives throughout The City this week.

“Being disabled, I go to the doctor’s office a couple of times a month and I need to know when those appointments are,” Shomer said. “With my memory, I’d forget if I didn’t receive a phone call.”

Californians who receive government assistance — whether it’s Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, Medi-Cal or Section 8 housing — are now eligible for free cellphone service through Assurance Wireless. Households meeting low-income criteria also can apply for the program.

The Virgin Mobile service is funded by the federal Universal Service Fund. Customers who sign up will receive 250 minutes and 250 text messages over a 30-day period.

“What a difference this is going to make in people’s lives,” Hope SF Director Bevan Dufty said. “It will help them when they’re trying to find housing, employment and to reconnect with family.”

Six thousand residents signed up for Assurance Wireless at homeless shelters, community centers and veterans residences in the first three days of The City’s enrollment drive, and Dufty estimated that more than 75,000 people could be eligible citywide.

Dufty said Assurance Wireless could benefit the Homeward Bound program, which helps homeless people living in The City reconnect with their families and friends across the country.

“If they can have regular contact with their families they might be able to re-establish relationships,” Dufty said. “When you’re homeless, it’s difficult to be consistent and I’m sure some family members are looking for consistency.”

He also said the phones will help case managers who work with the homeless.

“I’m always worried if I don’t have a phone number to call somebody back,” Dufty said. “If I talk to somebody on the street and I don’t have a way to reach them, it’s really unlikely that I’m going to be successful.”

Nathaniel Rogers, who receives Supplemental Security Income, said his social worker has to contact him through a friend, making it difficult to set up appointments. He said his new phone will facilitate the process.

“If I get a call when I’m not around, they miss me,” Rogers said. “The good thing about having a phone is they can leave a message.”

pgackle@sfexaminer.com

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Paul Gackle

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