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Fighting Homelessness, One Smartphone at a Time

by | Apr 14, 2015 | News

NY TImesFighting Homelessness, One Smartphone at a Time

Holly Leonard has been homeless on and off for years. There was a stint in jail and, more recently, a period in a women’s homeless shelter, while her husband slept in their car.

But last month, the two moved into a one-bedroom apartment in San Jose, Calif., complete with a small garden. Ms. Leonard found it on Craigslist while using her Nexus 5 smartphone — a donation from Google that she got from a San Jose nonprofit called Community Technology Alliance.

“People don’t put out ‘for rent’ signs anymore, so the Internet is the best way,” Ms. Leonard said. “You can’t even go get a paper application for a lot of things. You can’t get a job unless you get online.

“Before I got a free phone, it was like you’re almost nonexistent.”

The smartphone giveaway program, though small, typifies the way Bay Area tech companies have started to respond to the glaring homelessness problem right outside their luxurious company campuses: not by donating clothes or serving food, but by using technology.

Sometimes, Silicon Valley’s belief that tech can solve any problem — not just ordering cabs and sharing selfies, but ending homelessness or poverty — can seem like a stretch. Even Bill Gates, a founder of Microsoft, has argued against the idea. “P.C.s are not, in the hierarchy of human needs, in the first five rungs,” he said in a 2013 interview.

In the United States, though, Internet access has in many ways become like a basic need. Without it, it can be difficult to find a home, apply for a job, sign up for classes, make homeless shelter reservations or find soup kitchens. And for people who live on the streets, smartphones are the most efficient way to connect to the Internet. So while clothing and food are vital, advocates say equipping homeless and low-income people with phones and technical skills also makes sense.

“Homeless people live in the year 2015, too, and people need cellphones,” said Sam Dodge, who works on homeless issues in San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee’s office.

Some argue that is true worldwide. Melinda Gates, who leads the Gates Foundation with Mr. Gates, wrote in The New York Times this month that cellphones are essential to lifting women in developing countries out of poverty.

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