Drive seeks old cell phones for poor and homeless people to use during pandemic

Seeking to alleviate the additional burdens the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on local poor and homeless people, the Washtenaw County Poor People's Campaign and Groundcover News have launched a drive to collect old cell phones for them.


Phones (and chargers, cords, or instruction books, if available) can be dropped off at Groundcover's office at the back door of Bethlehem United Church of Christ, 423 S. Fourth Ave. in Ann Arbor. Someone will be in the office to receive donations Saturdays and Mondays from 11 a.m.-1 p.m.


Susan Beckett, Groundcover publisher, says "one of the first things that became apparent" when the pandemic hit was the challenge it posed to maintaining contact with the many homeless people the publication employs and serves.


"We used to keep in touch with people largely by them showing up at our office and our meetings, or we could find them at meals at [the Robert J. Delonis Center]," she says. "With all of that breaking down, it was apparent that we had a problem with having no way to get information to people if they were in trouble or to have them get the kind of help that the government was providing."


Beckett adds that the ways those people would usually make money – like selling Groundcover, cleaning people's homes, or panhandling – have also dried up. And with libraries closed, they have no way to get online to access government benefits.


"They're really worried," Beckett says. "They do not want to get sick."


Beckett reached out to other organizations who work with homeless and poor people, such as the Delonis Center and MISSION, and found that they could use phones as well. Organizers originally considered just buying phones, but the cost of purchasing phones that were compatible with contemporary wireless networks proved prohibitively expensive. So they decided to solicit public donations instead, with a rough goal of collecting at least 100 phones. Beckett says phone recipients can use public WiFi hotspots, which are currently available for free through Comcast and AT&T, or free public internet services like Wireless Ypsi.


Lisa Bashert, steering team member with the Washtenaw County Poor People's Campaign, says she hopes the campaign will start a "flow" of donations that may continue beyond the initial rough goal of 100 phones. She notes that the need for phones will continue after the pandemic passes, and phones may need to be replaced because poor and homeless people are more likely to have their belongings stolen.


Bashert says it's a "moral issue" that "our culture has decided that some people are almost expendable, that poor people's experience doesn't matter."


"This is wrong that we're allowing people of color and poor people to experience these conditions," she says. "So it's vital that we do what we can do and take our privilege and our wealth, if we have it, in the form of resources like a cell phone, and use it to benefit someone else instead of leaving it in a drawer."


For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.


Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate.

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