Free phones, call minutes draw crowds in Charleston, North Charleston
When David Underwood makes a quick buck by selling a pint of his own blood, he usually spends the cash on bus fares.
To participate, consumers must prove an income at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty level or participate in an assistance program, such as Medicaid, food stamps, Head Start and free lunch.
People also must provide photo ID with a temporary or permanent address.
Limited to one phone or discount per household.
Monthly discounts average $9.25. Some companies’ programs, like the EnTouch Wireless efforts in the Charleston area, include the one-time distribution of phones with 250 minutes of talk time each month. Customers can purchase additional minutes.
About 2,000 companies nationwide are eligible to provide the discounts. Those companies are reimbursed by the federal government.
Federal Communications Commission
The 28-year-old has been living on Charleston streets for four years, and finding steady income is a way out of his dire straits, he said.
If you go
Eligible people can wait from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today for a free phone. The operation continues during the same hours Monday through Friday next week at two locations:
Next to 524 Meeting St., which is near Lee Street, in downtown Charleston.
Next to the Dollar General store at 1365 Remount Road, North Charleston.
But he doesn’t earn enough money from peddling his plasma to buy the cellphone he said is needed for potential employers to contact him.
That’s why a federally funded operation based out of a minivan in downtown Charleston has thrown Underwood a line. Hundreds of low-income people this week have been lining up in a vacant lot near the Crisis Ministries shelter on Meeting Street and, in some cases, waiting nearly three hours for a free cellphone with 250 prepaid minutes per month.
Underwood snagged an LG with a sliding keypad and a camera.
“It’s only 250 minutes, so they’re very important minutes,” said Underwood, who aims to earn his commercial truck-driving license. “People can’t call me unless they’re on fire or they have a job for me.”
The government program, dubbed Lifeline, was developed in 1985 to give low-income Americans the ability to connect with potential employers, family members and emergency services. Underwood said the only time he ever needed to call 911 — for a destitute fellow suffering hallucinations — he didn’t have a phone.
The effort started as subsidies for land-line service but was expanded in 2005 to cover prepaid wireless phones. It is partially credited with boosting the portion of Americans with telephone access from 80 percent in the mid-1980s to 92 percent last year, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
Aid for cellphone service can total nearly $10 monthly with popular carriers. But smaller companies have formed with the sole purpose of providing impoverished families with refurbished prepaid cellphones.
Colloquially, they have become known as “Obama phones,” which sprang up as a misconception that President Barack Obama made strides to give the devices to poor people and minorities.
The only action under Obama came earlier this year with the adoption of provisions targeting abuse of the program and limiting each household to one phone.
But the myth has persisted: A 45-second YouTube clip of a Cleveland woman praising the president has garnered more than 7 million clicks.
“Keep Obama,” she says in the video filmed before the president’s re-election. “He gave us a phone. He’s gonna do more.”
Recipients of the free phones in Charleston and at a second location in North Charleston are required to show photo identification, as well as proof of federal or state government assistance, such as Medicaid or Section 8 housing.
Representatives from the company heading the operation, EnTouch Wireless, said their policy prohibits discussing the endeavor with the media.
The effort attracted a line of more than 80 people one day this week. Hopeful recipients sat on milk crates. A toddler danced with her shadow to onlookers’ raucous amusement. A woman talked on an iPhone as she signed up.
Deanna Diaz, 56, viewed a free phone as a way to reconnect with relatives dispersed from North Carolina to Texas to California.
“Everybody needs a phone,” said Diaz, who lives in an apartment on Meeting Street. “Everybody has family.”
Those who said pay phones are becoming obsolete also welcomed the program.
Retailers that once allowed visitors to use stores’ land-line phones are developing policies against the practice.
JC Penney and Sears at Northwoods Mall are among the exceptions, they said.
Silam Habib, 63, has leaned on friends who let him borrow phones for important calls. But rarely does he have the opportunity for longer chats with faraway family members.
“I haven’t talked to my sister in years,” Habib said. “So this is very much worth it, especially at this time of year.”
Some attributed failed job hunts to their lack of a cellphone.
In the past year, an employer looking to hire Christy Duby tried calling her deactivated pay-as-you-go phone six times, she said. By the time she learned about the attempts, it was too late.
The 57-year-old, who rests her head at Crisis Ministries, said a disabled arm forced her to quit past jobs with Pizza Hut and Chick-Fil-A. But Duby has regained 50 percent use of the limb, and she longs to jump back into the job market.
“One way or another, I want to use this phone to get some money coming in,” she said. “I’m not going to sit on my laurels.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.