Thom, “the phone man,” age 70, agreed to meet with us and talk about the challenges he faces in being part-time homeless. “The phone man” nickname, as he’s known on the streets, comes from his employment with Assurance, a cellular phone company, specializing in Obama Phones.***
Thom has lived in Jacksonville for thirty-three years and has been “part-time homeless” for the last five years. He refers to his situation this way because his business fluctuates so that when it’s profitable, he’s able to afford a hotel room maybe two weeks every month. When it’s slow, he stays on the streets. A few years ago, stricter regulations imposed for Obama Phones due to millions of dollars in fraud being committed in the country significantly impacted Thom’s business.
When he’s not able to afford a room, Thom prefers to stay on the street with a group of friends he’s comfortable with rather than go to a shelter. He cites such issues as check-in time and security of belongings. He finds it inconvenient to check into a shelter in the afternoon when he’s working. There isn’t any flexibility at the shelters to account for people who are holding jobs and trying to be productive. Another issue Thom finds aggravating is that when staying at one, you are separated from your belongings. Your personal items get left in an unsecured area. He refers to one such incident with some agitation. “I had a brand-new hoodie that someone had bought me for my birthday, and someone just walked off with it.”
When Thom confronted the person about it, the staff member at the shelter said he couldn’t prove it was his, so there was nothing they could do. If he had to leave his Notebook computer unattended and someone stole it, he wouldn’t be able to work. This rule presents a real problem for him.
There are other issues the homeless face when utilizing the shelters overnight. First, there is a vetting process that includes having an acceptable ID, background checks, and a TB card from the Health Department. To get a TB test, one must go to the Health Department and wait for the results, then for the temporary card, to be followed by the permanent one, which can take days. Thom wonders why the medical staff at the shelters can’t perform such tests.
Fortunately, finding food doesn’t seem to be as much a problem, according to Thom. “If you go hungry in Jax, that’s on you.”
Between the local shelters and church ministries, you can always find a meal. While this is good to hear, Thom says affordable housing remains one of the biggest problems he sees. There are too many people like himself, working and trying to be productive without a physical or mental disability, who fall through the cracks of eligibility for housing assistance. Thom says that people have told him numerous times that he doesn’t qualify. He earns too much money to meet the criteria for help but not enough to secure a place of his own.
There is a sense of resignation in Thom’s voice, but also a passion for change. He speaks of having patience in getting through it. “You must be patient. Too many people get frustrated and give up.” Frustration leads to anger, which tends to get discharged at whoever gets in the way. Thom refers to a downward spiral, which often leads to hopelessness. These feelings often open the door to drug use and addiction, furthering the downward spiral, as Thom too often encounters with others on the streets.
His caring and empathy are evident as he tries to be there for homeless people and to listen to them. There was a young man, in particular, he saw one day who was obviously “out of it” on drugs and very discouraged. Thom says people need to think of their adverse circumstances as a “speed bump…not a barrier. You’ll get through it.” After speaking with this young man for a while, the next time he saw him, there was a definite upswing in his attitude. He told Thom how the very act of being listened to without judgment helped him immensely.
When reading or hearing about the number of homeless in our area recently, the reports claim that numbers are down. Thom sees otherwise. “Take a walk down the streets and look.” From his experience volunteering for a church ministry making dinners on Wednesday evenings, the numbers are up. He explains that what started out as approximately fifty dinners has increased to around one hundred currently.
“I appreciate the fact my cooking’s that good,” Thom says with a grin.
Although Thom doesn’t have family in the Jacksonville area, he does have some relatives in Georgia, where he’s from originally. Thom says he’s moving there in the near future and starting a new job managing two separate farms. That seems to be quite a change from his current type of work, but Thom says he grew up on a farm, so it’s very familiar for him. That’s as far north as he’s interested in going, he tells me, as he doesn’t much care for the cold.
We finish our conversation with a sense of hope, hope that things will get better, that more resources will be available for the homeless in Jacksonville to get their lives back on track. There’s an optimism in Thom’s voice that expresses belief that it’s possible to move through difficult circumstances and feeling stuck is only temporary. In subsequent blog posts, we’ll meet with various shelters and ministries that are providing help for our homeless and explore the services they are providing.
As we shake hands and say goodbye, I’m encouraged that he’s getting past this speed bump in his life, and we wish Thom the best of luck in finding greener pastures.
***For some background information, Obama Phones are government provided smartphones funded through the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program. This program originated to provide landlines for those who qualified, then expanded to include coverage of cell phones in 2008 when Barack Obama was elected to office. We all contribute to this Universal Service Fund, a few cents at a time, through our phone bills. For those who qualify, based on specific criteria, a smartphone with 250 free wireless voice minutes per month is provided. It remains to be seen if this program will be subject to cutbacks in the Trump administration.
According to a Healthify Blog, “A Smartphone Solution: Connected Care for Homeless,”by Bobby Holt, more than 230 million smartphones in the U.S. are being used by all ages and socioeconomic groups. Research has found by providing phones to the homeless, they have access to emergency services, can manage their healthcare, and can find housing options. These programs were created to provide stability in their often-chaotic lives. One such example was a study in 2012 that found when patients who were given a phone and sent a reminder about taking their prescription medication, there was 100% adherence to their plan. Although these programs aren’t without controversy, there seem to be some tangible positive outcomes as a result.
***The interviews are told from the interviewees’ perspectives and are not verified beyond their word. If there are untruths and inconsistencies, there are also many truths, enough that we as readers can step into their world and understand the need for change.