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Thursday, May 28, 2020

An Essential Lifeline for Homeless New Yorkers

In early March, New York City was fast becoming the nation’s epicenter for cases of COVID-19. Across Breaking Ground, our staff were adapting to new guidance daily, and planning for how to safely provide essential services to clients and tenants in the era of social distancing.

On the streets, our outreach teams were still visiting and working with unsheltered New Yorkers. In addition to helping clients meet their basic needs in an increasingly challenging environment, outreach teams kept their focus on the most important way to help protect people from the spread of the coronavirus – to obtain permanent housing.

But in-person housing interviews and visits to an office to verify benefits were now suddenly out of the question. One thing became immediately clear - the only way to sustain momentum in a process to move homeless clients toward housing would be to facilitate communication almost exclusively over the phone

When living on the streets, it’s not uncommon for personal belongings to be lost, stolen, or damaged. While some people living unsheltered have cell phones, many more do not. Heather Frey, Assistant Vice President for Programs took on the task of seeking out phones that could be distributed to street homeless clients.

Sometimes known as “burner” phones, inexpensive cell phones with pre-assigned numbers and prepaid talk, text and data plans are relatively easy to buy, but only individually. A key issue soon became apparent to Heather – while she could queue up to buy phones each morning from a major retailer, she was limited to purchasing two per day, and was not able to make any headway with a bulk order – understandable, as these phones have a certain reputation for anyone who’s seen The Wire. Two phones a day were better than none, but staff needed many more phones much more quickly in order to have their desired effect in helping homeless New Yorkers during COVID-19.

Burner Phone Body

At just $20, this flip phone offers 7 hours of continuous talk time and up to 17 days of standby on a full charge – important if you don't always have access to a power outlet.

After spending hours and hours researching through multiple retailers and coming up empty handed due to a variety of barriers, Heather ended up speaking with two different agents over the phone. The first indicated that a slightly larger order might be possible, but the line disconnected. Despite Heather’s best efforts, she could not get back to the person she’d previously spoken to, and a different agent told her larger orders were out of the question, and escalating the request was not getting her anywhere. Resigned to the purchase of two phones a day, she continued to research and shared the resources with her colleagues.

Soon after, Eva DeBeliso, Outreach and Logistics Coordinator for Breaking Ground’s Street to Home program in Brooklyn and Queens, began making the same purchase of two phones a day for her teams’ clients. In a stroke of luck, Eva was connected to a sales agent who offered to facilitate a larger order. After some additional back-and-forth the agent approved a purchase of 50 phones and accompanying talk/text/data plans. It was clear she had spoken to the right person at the right time.

Meanwhile, the need continued to grow. Some clients of Breaking Ground’s Scatter Site program, through which we provide supportive services to formerly homeless individuals living in privately owned and managed buildings spread out across the five boroughs, also needed phones to access vital assistance. And some of our older tenants at The Domenech senior residence in Brooklyn did as well.

Burner Phone Body2

Tarmara Fulcher, Housing Retention Specialist at The Domenech, shows off a phone that will be distributed to a senior tenant to help them stay connected during the COVID-19 crisis.

Armed with sales contact information from Eva, Heather reached out and attempted buy another 50 phones and data plans. Yet again, she met with resistance. Heather, however, is not one to give up easily, especially when the needs of homeless and formerly homeless New Yorkers are at stake. After using all of the sweet talk she could muster on the phone, and jumping through several more hoops in the retailer’s online system, she was finally able to secure another large order. And just like that, 50 more phones were on the way to The Domenech.

We distributed the phones across program sites and to clients, and the fruits of these efforts were immediately apparent. A street homeless client, Mr. B, was able to conduct a housing interview from his location outdoors – if all goes well, he’ll be moving into an apartment with Breaking Ground’s Scatter Site program at the beginning of June.

Burner Phne Body4

Mr. B uses his new phone for a housing interview on the street.

Planning carefully with Scatter Site program leadership and our Leasing department, an outreach team will bring Mr. B’s paperwork to him, and the Scatter Site program director will guide him through the lease documents by phone. With the lease signed, his outreach team will travel with him to his new apartment, where a shiny new set of keys will be waiting, along with all the basics he needs to make a home.

And once the reality of home settles in, only one question remains – who’s the first person he’ll call or text to share the good news?

Breaking Ground serves more than 8,000 people annually across our continuum of programs and housing. Your gift during this COVID-19 crisis helps us provide phones like these – and a whole array of vital services – to help people come indoors, maintain housing for the long term, and rebuild their lives. Donate now here.

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