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Outdoor Public Phones for Juneau's Unsheltered

November 8. 2020. Nearly everyone has access to use someone's cell phone, but many of Juneau's unsheltered residents do not have one of their own (tinyurl.com/ktoo-2020i08-shelter). Many cannot meet the requirements to get a lifeline cell from GCI (tinyurl.com/gci-2020c14-lifeline (2 page PDF). Additionally, while Juneau has several outdoor stations for rich people to charge their electric cars, there's not a single such station for unsheltered people to charge their cell phones.

Outdoor public phones are the ultimate lifeline service. Without access to a charged cell phone or working outdoor public phone how can an unsheltered person reach Alaska 2-1-1 (800-478-2221 Mo-Fr 8:30a-6p) to get immediate help with employment, food, housing, the suicide hotline, and more (alaska211.org)? Outside the Main street police substation there is a phone, but it's only a hotline to the Juneau police business number. That is no substitute for the ability to reach social services or other help.

The line cost for a private payphone line in Juneau was only $28.95 a month in 2015 (tinyurl.com/2015-acs-tariff-251 (258 page PDF). After ACS exited the payphone business in 2010, the CBJ arranged to pay for continued service using tour ship head tax money. I don't know how much the CBJ was paying -- I believe they were paying ACS to be the operator -- but it clearly should have been modest.

The replacement cost for a vandalized armored phone is only one hundred fifteen ($115) dollars in 2020 (tinyurl.com/cheap-armored-wall-phone).

Alas, ACS now says that when service lapses at an existing 'pay' phone, they won't restore it. By letting the service lapse, the CBJ may have made it more difficult to turn even one back on. On the other hand, one might argue that they're really just courtesy business lines and not payphones at all, since local calls are free and everything else requires a credit card. The Alaska Regulatory Commission specifically declares that they can waive any of the normal 'pay' phone requirements at need, so ACS and CBJ should be able to work something out.

The CBJ was quick to demand that the unsheltered stand up and be counted for the census, since it brings in money. Where are they now in offering a fair exchange: the facility necessary for an unsheltered person to reach out and call for help? Those public phones mattered. Last year, there were five of them. Now, in the middle of the Coronavirus catastrophe, there are none downtown. I'm told there is still one at the boat harbor.

S Franklin St Dock Phone.
The public phone at the end of the Franklin Street dock suffered a broken hookswitch some months ago. This was reported to the city but it was never fixed. It has since been physically removed. Only the wires remain 2020-jnu-s-franklin-dock-phone.jpg.

City Hall Hostile Phone Substitute. The two public phones at the end of city hall were vandalized some months ago. They were never repaired and have since been removed. Only a hostile sign threatening to seize the unsheltered folk's belongings and take them to Douglas (instead of city hall, or the JACC) remains 2020-jnu-city-hall-hostile.jpg.

Library phones
The two public phones at the parking garage entrance to the downtown library have more recently been vandalized and not repaired 2020-jnu-library-phones.jpg.

It isn't as if the CBJ has no idea about the issue. Several neighbors have contacted the manager's office and/or assembly members about it. None have received a meaningful reply.

This has been ongoing for some years. I covered it in my long-ago letter commenting on the then-proposed anti-camping ordinance (2017) (walt.gregg.juneau.ak.us/3/comment-juneau-homeless-ordinance.) After that assembly meeting, many issues were dealt with, from working pay phones to housing first. I was mightily impressed. I'm extremely disappointed to see current city management backslide on these critical issues.

Perhaps part of the problem is that people simply can't believe how difficult it is to recover from 'homelessness'. Let's just look at how impossible it is for the unsheltered to actually get the 'lifeline' cell service you think we're giving them:

  1. It requires government-issued photo ID. This is a nearly insurmountable barrier for the newly unsheltered whose purse or wallet has been stolen. See Nat'l Law Center On Homelessmess & Poverty (Apr. 2004), at nlchp.org/documents/ID_Barriers.
  2. It requires documentation proving your social security number, such as a W2 form.
  3. It requires documentation proving low enough income (In Alaska less than $21,533 for a single), such as a tax return.
  4. It apparently requires a fixed residential address. Application forms state that a PO Box is not acceptable.
  5. There is no statement indicating how much cash you must have if you can meet the other requirements, only a note that surcharges and taxes are not waived and must be paid on top of the $12/yr. On a landline, those surcharges total $171/yr (FCC:$78/yr; AK:$70/yr; JNU911:$23/yr). So is the full cost really $183/yr, and must you pay it up front? Or will an up front payment of perhaps $15 do? It might be nice for people to know before they suffer through the minefield application process.

If you can navigate lifeline service, you should be able to get a degree in engineering. In view of all this, it seems callous, irresponsible, and even negligent for the CBJ to fail to ensure even a single working outdoor public phone -- a courtesy phone -- anywhere in the downtown.

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