Wi-Fi is a lifeline in the pandemic. It's harder to get if you're homeless

Simply charging a phone is an even bigger hurdle. There's help, but the need is greater.

Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
Expertise E-commerce, Amazon, earned wage access, online marketplaces, direct to consumer, unions, labor and employment, supply chain, cybersecurity, privacy, stalkerware, hacking. Credentials
  • 2022 Eddie Award for a single article in consumer technology
Laura Hautala
5 min read
James Martin/CNET

It's always hard for Franz Lupo to keep his phone charged, and he's using some of that juice to talk with me. From a San Francisco Bay Area town where he lives in a tent, Lupo tells me over the phone that he typically goes to Starbucks or the local library to restore his battery to full bars. 

With these places closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, however, Lupo has come to rely on a carwash with a power outlet he can access after hours. 

"It's hard to find a place around here that will let you come in and charge the phone," he said, a hint of Texas drawl in his voice.

The phone, which the 67-year-old got through a federally administered program called Lifeline, helps Lupo stay in touch with a doctor who monitors his heart problem. He also uses his phone to keep in touch with social service workers, some of whom have to stay away due to social distancing requirements even while they're helping Lupo access Social Security payments and his stimulus check. One of the first things he wants to buy when the payments come through is a portable phone charger.

(After the publication of this story, Lupo got approved to move into a hotel as part of a county program to protect people with pre-existing health risks. He also received a solar-powered phone charger.)

Lupo isn't alone. With most of the US under orders to stay at home, many people are relying on their phones and computers to stay connected to the outside world through the internet. The roughly 550,000 homeless people in the US also need these services but are struggling to protect phones from thieves, keep them charged and connect them to the internet. And many people who aren't homeless still don't have an internet connection where they live. 

As a result, people can't access quick information about unemployment benefits, the status of their stimulus check and other vital services millions of people are relying on as the economy reels. People with children are also struggling to keep kids connected to school. 

Social services, city governments and libraries are trying to fill the gap by providing tech, internet connections, and important updates about the virus to people who need it. People are accessing Wi-Fi from outside library buildings or with borrowed Wi-Fi hotspots. Electricity is available in some city-sanctioned encampments and at public charging stations. 


A San Francisco resident in 2015 learns about the Lifeline program, which offers free phones, minutes and broadband to people receiving benefits like disability or food stamps. A phone can do amazing things, "when you do have it," said a service provider.

James Martin/CNET

Just having a phone, like Lupo does, gives people relying on homeless services a big boost, says Jenny Robbins, chief of programs for Contra Costa County Health, Housing and Homeless Services in Northern California. 

"When you do have it," she said, "it's amazing what it can do for you."

The need for phones, electricity and internet far outstrips what's available. Robbins says she's holding out hope that wealthy donors in Silicon Valley will step in to help their neighbors who are homeless during the public health crisis, and beyond.

The simple problem of keeping phones charged is especially tough, Robbins says, adding that there's also need for a big-picture solution, like putting charging stations at food distribution centers. For now, Robbins' agency has secured funding for solar-powered phone chargers, which they have just started distributing to people living outside, she said.

Knowledge and power outlets

Kristen Calvert, a manager with the Dallas Public Library, says one library location is near an emergency shelter in her city and residents often come by the library for help. Even though the library building is closed now, people continued congregating outside looking for technical assistance, she says. For a while, the librarians went out and helped them.

Sometimes Calvert helped people navigate an online form, like a woman who needed help submitting information related to her stimulus check. Other times, Calvert or another librarian took a person's device inside and charged it for them. 

Now the library is helping people through the Dallas Office of Homeless Solutions, but no longer outside the building. At the time, it was like an open air reference desk, Calvert says, with one-on-one interactions to help people with questions. "That's who we always are," she said, "but even more so right now."

Internet connections from outside

New York public library buildings are closed, but patrons are accessing the internet from outside. The libraries have seen more than 20,000 Wi-Fi sessions at locations throughout the city since stay-at-home orders took effect in March. 

The numbers aren't surprising, since about 20% of New Yorkers don't have home internet or mobile data plans, says Brian Bannon, the Merryl and James Tisch Director of The New York Public Library. The library also had 1,200 Wi-Fi hotspots checked out to families with school-aged children and no home internet when they closed their buildings. (The hotspots then got an upgrade to 20 gigabytes from 3GB of monthly high-speed data.)

It still isn't enough to connect everyone who needs internet access, Bannon says, adding that it will help to get broadband in more homes as a plan recently adopted by New York City aims to do. 

"In the meantime," he said, "we'll leave our Wi-Fi on."

Tech brings independence

Andrew Constantino says internet connections should be a public utility, available to all, including people who are homeless. Constantino is in the process of moving into permanent housing, leaving behind his place in a tiny home village tucked between a fire station and a Boeing airfield in Seattle. 


Andrew Constantino and his partner Hattie Rhodes on Halloween at the tiny house village in Seattle where they both lived until finding housing in April. Constantino says internet access helps people who are homeless function in society.

Courtesy of Andrew Constantino

The colorfully painted tiny homes offer people staying at the city-sanctioned village the ability to keep their possessions, including phones and chargers, safe, Constantino says. The security of the village, along with permanent Wi-Fi hotspots from the Seattle Public Library, has helped residents take care of their own needs during the pandemic. 

They've been able to research the stimulus program and share information to help residents access their payments, he says, in addition to looking up recommendations from the CDC about COVID-19.

Constantino says the internet gives people independence, adding, "I don't know how you expect those living in poverty, without housing, to take part in society, to become productive members of such, without those basic needs met."

A bridge to housing

From his tent in Northern California, Lupo tells me his phone is also helping him stay in touch with the people helping him apply for housing. In addition to a portable phone charger, he wants to put his stimulus and Social Security money toward a subsidized apartment for seniors. 

"I'm trying everything I can to get into one of them," he said.

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