The poorest of the poor in California soon will have easier access to one of society's modern conveniences: the cellphone.
A federal program designed to help homeless and other impoverished people connect with family, friends, housing programs and potential employers will provide potentially millions of Californians with free cellphones and service, officials said this week.
The phone giveaways, approved last week by the state Public Utilities Commission, undoubtedly will be controversial, officials acknowledged. But backers said they believe the program will improve quality of life for Californians who cannot afford phones.
"In this day and age, having access to communications is not a luxury," said Jayne Wallace, whose company, Assurance Wireless, will organize phone distribution in the state. "Having a cellphone can make a huge difference in the lives of many people," including seniors and the disabled, she said.
California residents who receive Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, food stamps and other aid will be eligible for the federal "Lifeline" program, as well as those whose annual incomes are below $15,000, officials said. Roughly 4.6 million California households could be eligible, based on rough estimates by Assurance.
Logistics of how and when phones will be distributed have yet to be worked out, but the program should be in place early in 2013, they said.
"We're thrilled about this," said Joan Burke of Loaves & Fishes, the Sacramento area's largest provider of services to homeless people. "It will make it so much easier for people to look for places to rent, pursue jobs and reconnect with their families.
"We often have families coming to Loaves & Fishes or calling us, because they know their relative is out here but they don't have a way to contact them. So this is about the best Christmas news we could ever have."
California has helped pay phone bills for poor people since 1985, and that program currently serves about 1.5 million people. But until now the service has covered only landline, or traditional, telephones wired to homes, said PUC spokesman Andrew Kotch.
The federal program, created by congressional mandate, is funded through contributions by telephone companies to the Universal Service Fund. Companies can recoup part of their contributions through fees charged to paying customers.
"It's a business. It contributes to the number of subscribers for us, but it also is a great service. I call it a win-win," said Wallace.
Assurance, an arm of the Sprint telephone company, already manages federal Lifeline programs in 36 states. At the end of June, 17.6 million people were Lifeline clients nationwide; about 36 million are eligible, Wallace said.
The average cost of the program is about $100 per year per subscriber, according to federal figures.
Homeless advocates in California have been pushing for approval of Assurance's plan for at least two years, but setting it up was complicated by state regulations governing such programs, officials said.
"Assurance has finally submitted a plan compliant with CPUC rules," Kotch said. "We've approved that."
The only remaining obstacle is agency approval of the wireless company's plans for distributing phones.
Wallace said her company is considering various options for handing out phones in California, including working with nonprofit groups, social service agencies and retailers. "We want to make it as easy as possible so people will take advantage of it," she said.
Participants might have to pay $20 upfront for their phones when they apply for the program, but will receive refunds if they are deemed eligible, she said.
Those who qualify will get basic cellphones, plus 250 voice minutes and 250 text messages per month, said Wallace. Participants who want more minutes and messages can pay for them.
Eligibility will last for a year, after which it will be reviewed.
The Federal Communications Commission oversees the Lifeline program, which has been offering wireless services to eligible people around the country since 2005.
In response to complaints about fraud and abuse in the program, the agency recently "did a lot of tightening of the rules," said spokesman Mark Wigfield.
Efforts to prevent households from receiving duplicate benefits, for example, saved $33 million last year, the FCC has reported. The agency also has created databases to track eligibility.
At the same time, the FCC eliminated a rule requiring participants to have a "permanent address," because that shut out the homeless, nursing home residents and people in shelters.
An article about the program on Breitbart.com, a national news site that leans to the political right, drew sharp criticism from readers who lashed out at the idea of handing out "Obamaphones" to homeless and poor people. Some worried that people would sell the phones or use them for criminal activity.
Wallace said those criticisms are based on "myths" about who is getting the phones.
"We're talking about the most basic, simple feature phone, no bells and whistles," she said. "Why would people go to the trouble of applying and providing all kinds of identification for this service" unless they truly needed it, she asked.
John Kraintz, a homeless advocate who camped outdoors for years but now collects federal benefits and lives in an apartment, said the program has promise. But it also raises some practical questions, such as where homeless people would charge their phones, he said. He also noted that some homeless men and women "don't trust the government," and might be reluctant to sign up for the federal program.
"But it's true that the real solution to homelessness is finding people other places to live, and the main thing that would help them do that is access to a phone," Kraintz said. "That way, they could get in contact with people who can help them deal with their issues, and make and keep appointments."
Kraintz said he spends much of his day traveling to campsites and other places where homeless people gather, relaying messages left on his phone.
"I have a phone and they don't, so when a social worker calls I run out to the river and give them the information," he said. "It's not very practical."
For information about the federal Lifeline program, go to: www.assurancewireless.com