Firefighters responded to Intervale Road in Burlington this week after a homeless man living in an encampment by the Winooski river called 911. He told responders he was stranded -- surrounded by rising waters.
Homeless advocates say the incident highlights the importance of reliable communication, especially for those in need. "When you've lost your home, to lose a vital communication tool just compounds the problems you are trying to overcome," said Rita Markley with COTS.
Markley says cell phones have practically become a basic necessity and the non-profit is launching a new program to give homeless families access to these devices. "Without that, people can't follow up on apartments or employment or training programs because there's not a way to communicate," she said.
The HowardCenter Street Outreach team says it also provides cell phone access to about 30 people. The group says cell phones have become the primary means of communication for many people. "In those cases we will sometimes purchase limited cell phone minutes for the person so that they can work on their service plan with their substance abuse provider to get housing," said HowardCenter's Tammy Boudah.
Boudah says keeping tabs on people using the phones for exactly the right reasons can present a challenge. "It's usually somebody we have been working with and we have a relationship with them, so we are relatively sure of what we are going to be doing with the phone," she said.
And the groups don't buy pricey cell phones with data plans in order to reduce the risk of phones being used for other purposes. Both agencies say that although public access to landlines is limited, Internet access in Burlington is readily available, but communicating by phone is essential. And in some cases -- like the incident on Intervale Road last weekend -- can save lives.
"Whether you're homeless or your poor, having a way to communicate is a lifeline to the modern world," Markley said.
COTS plans to launch the program next week and will provide simple TracFones for up to 25 homeless families.