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Finances & Money

Who uses pay phones anyway?

pay phoneI caught this article from the Baltimore Sun about pay phone decline hitting the homeless. Honestly, I don’t remember the last time I used a pay phone, except while in Ireland for our honeymoon 4 years ago. It was an awkward experience as I couldn’t even remember if I dialed or put in the money first.

The article highlights that not everyone has a home phone, a cell phone, or even a home. I really have overlooked the part of the nation that actually can’t afford a phone and just assumed you could reach everyone at every time. How naive of me.

With the increased use of cell phones, we in the middle class are considering whether we even need a home phone, but many Americans are on the losing end of this “explosion” because pay phones are simply dying out. As the article mentions, the homeless need a phone number for prospective employers to call. They can either give out the number at the local shelter or the local pay phone. With the shelter, though, the employer will know the applicant is homeless.

But not all is lost for the homeless. The homeless can still get a cellphone by using a pay-as-you-go plan, but it’s costly when you don’t have an income. From the article:

Such plans tend to cost more per minute. Verizon Wireless customers who sign a two-year contract can get 450 minutes a month for $39.99, said company spokeswoman Sherri Cunningham, a cost of less than 1 cent per minute. Pay-as-you-go customers pay 2 to 10 cents a minute, plus an access fee of 99 cents to $2.99 each day they use their phones, she said.

So it seems the pay phone is still the best option financially for the homeless or low-income earners. And where do they get email access? The library. How about voicemail? Community Voice Mail. And how are these all funded? By YOU, via donations and taxes (for the library). Now you know that perhaps that homeless man asking for change really just needed it to find a job, or call home to his family.

The lessons here are:

1. Don’t assume that everyone has access to what you consider “the basic necessities”. Sure, there’s a cell phone for just about every adult in the United States, but that doesn’t mean they’re distributed that way.

2. Consider giving some spare change to that homeless man or woman on the street. I know it’s very easy to just assume they’ll use it for booze, or that they “shouldn’t be so lazy and get a job”, but that quarter might be their one chance for a job.

I’ve learned my lesson now.

Image Courtesy of PFFurlong06

About the author

Clever Dude


  • Kind of off topic, but I don’t ever give money directly to homeless people. I’m so jaded that I never trust that they’re using it for what they say they are.
    This was reinforced when I was an intern in DC a few years ago. I went out to lunch with some co-workers and there was a homeless man outside asking for money for food.
    On the way out, I stopped and bought a sandwich and a bottle of water and gave it to him as I left.
    He threw it in the trash and said he wanted to buy his own food.
    I was so ticked off that I told him that if he wanted to buy his own food, then he needed to get a job and pay for it himself.

  • I don’t give money to people on the street, but I do buy the Big Issue sometimes, which is a magazine sold by homeless sellers on the street in the UK (overseas too?). That’s not charity though, Big Issue sellers buy their copies at half retail value and resell to the public. People have used it to get themselves back into the rest of society.

  • I tried to buy a meal for a guy one time and he told me he didn’t like burgers, he wanted a chicken sandwich. Unreal. What’s the saying, “Beggars can’t be choosers?” I guess someone should tell them that.

    I can’t remember the last time I used a payphone, but I guess they are still serving a purpose to a small segment.

  • How much does it cost to make a call on a pay phone anyway?

    A side note, as I was waiting at a light I offered one homeless guy some bottled water. It was mid summer and 100+ degrees. He actually refused because the person in the car ahead of me gave him a beer!!

    On the other hand, I did give money to the guy who had very obviously been bitten by a brown recluse and needed antibiotics. My husband actually gets to know the homeless on his daily drives and finds out exactly what they need, such as socks, a t-shirt, a blanket, or a meal. He gives samples of dog food to those who are so down and out that they can afford to take care of a pet. He’s a real softie, that one.

  • The library where I work has one. And speaking of small change, a rather desperate looking woman (pregnant with small child) came in Monday looking for information about womens’ shelters. She didn’t even have money to call them herself. Fortunately, since it was a local call, the librarians let her use our phones. It seemed like she’d just gotten out of a bad situation that afternoon and needed to find some help…and I was glad that the more senior librarians knew what to do (I don’t know much about local shelters or anything).

  • It was funny, I did not have my cell phone with me a couple weeks ago and needed to make a call. With the advent of cell phones, it is hard to even find a payphone these days. I had to walk around a newer shopping mall for 10 minutes before I could find one. Then it costs me 50 cents to make a local call. So if you want to give to the homeless you better bump that quarter up to 50 cents!

  • Yeah, can’t remember the last time I used a payphone…

    Something I think about is what will beggars do when we as a country become cashless (no paper or coins). Will they walk around with credit card readers?

  • It’s not just the homeless…until this past year I strongly resisted the idea of getting a cell phone, which I still refer to as an “electronic leash.” Fewer and fewer pay phones have made it pretty difficult to stay “off the leash” and so I have caved and actually gotten a cell now for my job.

  • I try not to hand money to homeless people. Having lived and gone to grad school in the ghetto for 3 years (Baltimore City) and also having worked drug cases in the city, I know for a fact that most are going to use the money to purchase illegal substances. It’s best to hand them bottles of water or gatorade.

  • The other big use for pay phones is drug dealers. They are harder to trace,and they are harder to pin to one persons use.

    Anyone remember how bad the phone booths got in major cities…It would be good if there were emergency phone (yellowbox freeway types to report issues to the police)

  • I don’t have a cell phone and it’s not because I can’t afford one. I don’t really need one. When the occasional car emergency happens (usually close to home), it can be handled without a cell phone.

    Sure, cell phones are extremely convenient. Do I really need one? No.
    Most plans are $40.00 dollars per month. I simply don’t want to be accessible all of the time or have a phone that I don’t use often.

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