I can tell he’s different the moment he walks in the coffee shop. It isn’t his appearance. He looks presentable, if a little rough around the edges, clutching an iPhone to his barrel chest. It’s how he moves: warily, shoulders hunched over, eyes darting. The body language would read as suspicious, if not for the flicker of fear and apprehension in his eyes — as if he’s scared of being noticed, vigilant to his surroundings and desperately trying to blend in at the same time.
He orders a coffee, carefully counting out coins on the counter. He sits down at the table next to me and checks his phone, just like everyone else here. He punches in a few numbers and begins to talk in a low voice — discreet but urgent. I can’t help but overhear his conversations.
Does someone have some cash jobs for him? Can he crash at a friend of a friend’s place? Can he get a ride out to the soup kitchen? After a minute, it becomes clear: he’s homeless. A homeless man with an iPhone.
Bert isn’t unsheltered. He bounces between emergency shelters and friends’ couches while he seeks temporary, cash-based day-laborer work. He refuses, in fact, to call himself homeless. “This is just a temporary condition,” he tells me more than once, after we strike up a conversation. Over and over again, he says he’ll get himself out of “this tight spot,” though he’s vague about how long he’s been in it and how he got here.
He makes it clear: he hasn’t given up.
It’s not easy to engage him in conversation. When I ask how he liked his iPhone, he looks at me like I’m crazy. Later, he chalks up his guarded nature to the fact that he often doesn’t have casual conversations anymore. Most people, he says, tend to avoid him once they realize he is poor and transient. “You can’t hide it, being poor,” he says.
He makes a joke about people acting as if poverty is an infectious disease. They give him a wide berth and pretend he’s not there. “I can go whole days without people not even looking at me,” he says. “And when they do, it often means they’re sizing you up, wondering if they need to kick you out or something.” The result, he adds, is a sense of exile, from any feeling of belonging you have to the human race.
His iPhone, then, functions as an important conduit. On the surface, it’s his most important, practical tool. He can call places for work with it. He can call up shelters and other social services to see what’s available. He calls public transportation to find out which bus lines are running and check out schedules.
Text is especially important. He can reach out to friends to see if he can crash with them for a night or two, especially if the weather is rough. But he has to be careful. “You don’t want to impose,” he says. “You can’t exhaust your friends. Otherwise they’ll get tired of helping you, thinking, ‘Why are you still struggling?'” The hidden worry is that he’ll never leave.
All this is easier to manage over text than calling. “You don’t have to worry about sounding upbeat and confident all the time,” he says. No one wants to help out the hopeless, and sometimes, it’s not really so easy to disguise the worry and anxiety from the voice.
Despite nearly everyone owning a phone, we think of them as luxuries, especially as data plans approach $100 a month. The idea of a homeless man with an iPhone, but no job or roof over his head, is discomfiting, mostly because poverty is perhaps one of the last bastions of unexamined prejudice in the U.S. Few would argue that people of different races or genders shouldn’t own phones, but it’s still common to temper sympathy for the homeless or destitute if they have a phone.
Even the most progressive areas of the country can show a certain callousness to what poverty should look and feel like. In San Francisco, for example, city supervisor Malia Cohen sparked controversy when she posted a picture of a homeless man on Facebook, talking on a phone while huddled underneath a freeway overpass. “This kind of made me laugh,” she said, which lead to an uproar and eventual removal of the picture. Ironically, California decided to expand its Lifeline program to give free phones and service to the homeless, recognizing the value of the devices for the disadvantage.
The reality is homelessness is a simple term for a complex sociological condition, affected by a mosaic of factors that interact and affect one another in often unexpected ways. Large-scale trends like unemployment combust with local factors, such as lack of affordable housing or services easily accessible and open to those in need. Add in volatile personal situations — like addiction, family violence, financial instability or simply being far from family — you have a slippery slope to stand upon.
The homeless themselves range from the “unsheltered” living on the streets to doubled-up families living in single-occupancy homes. That includes those in transitory housing or emergency shelters, as well as a case of a student at NYU who attended school while sleeping at the library and showering at the gym.
About 20 out of every 10,000 people are homeless, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Anyone without enough personal or social capital can get caught in the cycle, and it’s not easy to pull out, when you consider the tremendous shame and judgment they experience within themselves and from the world at large. But there’s one effective tool that can help.
Yes — phones.
On another level, Bert says his phone connects him to less tangible, but still important, resources. He knows people can reach him, no matter where he sleeps at night. He gets daily e-mails from an online ministry, with inspirational messages and passages from the Bible. Those keep up his spirit and faith and keep him going. He can read news on the browser, too. He only gets a certain amount of time on the computer at the public library, so he often begins researching jobs and housing on his phone and makes a list of websites he wants to visit when he gets on a computer with a faster connection.
The iPhone also, in part, structures his day in an often chaotic life. He has an exhaustive list of places to charge his device, and he makes sure to hit them at some point during the day. He’s careful about his power and data use and carries a charger at all times, in one of the capacious pockets of his army jacket. “When I see a free outlet somewhere, I have to say, it feels like Christmas,” he adds. Free Wi-Fi inspires the same feeling; he can save his valuable data.
But the most valuable aspect about his iPhone is simply that it makes him look like everyone else. “You won’t believe it, but if I didn’t have my phone, I probably can’t just sit here and have my coffee and be talking to you,” he tells me. “It gives me something I can do in public. It’s not loitering if I’m typing or talking on my phone.” Loitering, he says, is often a good excuse to kick the homeless out of a place. And a phone is a passport that lets him stay in places longer than he would otherwise.
“You have to realize about my situation, most people don’t look beyond appearances,” he says. And if there’s one thing that matters to the homeless, according to Bert, it’s appearances. The minute the facade cracks and reveals his struggle, no one wants to be around you. No one wants to see it. People kick you out of places; they can tell you don’t belong anywhere.
In talking with Bert about not just phones, but his life in general, I realize he’s someone with a clear-eyed inventory of his scant resources. And he maximizes them with an eye to maintain appearances. Within that ruthless calculus, an iPhone is more important than his car, which he sold after the winter and didn’t need to sleep in as a last resort. And besides, he says, cops are on the lookout for people sleeping in cars — it’s not as practical as you’d think.
He used the car money to save for his phone bill, as well as a cheap $30 a month membership to a local 24-hour gym, which gives him regular access to a hot shower and a place he can go late at night if he needs. He knows that sounds ludicrous, but says nothing marks a homeless man more than pungent body odor and an unclean appearance.
You can have all the iPhones in the world with you, he tells me, but if you don’t have a regular way to staying clean, that’s the most dangerous thing of all. Nothing gets a homeless person kicked out faster, rejected from a job instantly or denied housing than looking dirty. He keeps repeating, “Dirty ain’t dignified.” It’s often that dignity that Bert fights so hard to maintain, even at the expense of other things — but definitely not at the cost of a phone.
His ability to stay afloat and even keep up his personal dignity sheds light not only on how central phones are to our lives — no matter how poor we are — but also the world’s poverty of generosity and compassion. For every example of someone helping another — such as a Reddit member who found a Chicago homeless man and delivered a care package to him — there are countless others who slip through the cracks, who walk in through doors of public places, face stares of cold evaluation and wonder if they’ll be kicked out.
Bert lives assuming that people’s generosity and compassion are limited to a certain point — and once you push past that point, you’re lost beyond all help. Despite his situation, he’s a proud man, but burdened with the “double consciousness” that marginalized people often have — able to see himself both through his eyes, and through the eyes of how others would judge him. And it’s clear the discrepancy between the two distresses him, and much of his survival strategy tries to bridge that gap.
I see Bert a few more times, but we never do talk as in-depth. Sometimes, he lets me buy him a coffee refill, though he wants to buy the first cup himself. Then, after a couple of months, Bert disappeared — I’m not really certain what happened to him.
Did he finally pull himself out of his “temporary condition,” as he called it? Or was he like countless others who slipped through the cracks into the shadowy netherworld of genuine destitution and poverty, becoming one of the “unsheltered”? I don’t know. Maybe he still has his iPhone, but he remains out of reach, lost somewhere in a world where social ties are tenuous connections, no matter how many gadgets we have. ♦