Free Phones Installed at Shelter : Homeless Let Fingers Do Walking

Times Staff Writer

In an inconspicuous little house in Costa Mesa, two telephones sit on a small table. The two white desk phones provide free communication for the homeless and needy of Orange County--people in search of jobs and places to stay who would not be able to afford a string of pay calls to prospective employers or landlords.

Cindy Ochs, director of the Orange Coast Interfaith Shelter, said Pacific Bell installed the phones that were put into use last week. One phone, Ochs said, is for homeless people in the area to call regarding work or places to live. The other is used to take messages for people who live at the shelter.

The first day the phones went into service, Connie, a woman who lives in the shelter, received a call regarding a position she had been trying to get as a nanny. A volunteer took the call, Ochs said, and Connie was able to call right back. Connie got the job.

Volunteers at the shelter answer the phone with a simple hello, so that residents do not have to admit to living in a shelter and risk being discriminated against, Ochs said. The center has "a good volunteer base to supervise use of the phone," she said, adding that "people are only allowed to use the phone for five minutes and they must write down the number and the purpose of their call."

Pacific Bell has the phone set up to reach only local areas.

Although the phone has not been advertised, more and more people are using it. "Word is just getting around," Ochs said. "We don't want long lines." Ochs said the shelter has had a good relationship with its neighbors and would hate to lose it because droves of people came to use the phone.

The phones are part of Pacific Bell's program to help the needy. The program originated in Oregon and then spread to California because of requests from members of Congress. The phones in this shelter, along with phones in nine other shelters throughout the state, were installed on a trial basis. The phone locations include two in Los Angeles and one in San Diego.

According to Pacific Bell, in choosing the agencies to receive phones, the oversight team considered location of the shelter, the needs of the community, the shelter's history of working with the homeless, and the availability of adequate staffing and space. Ochs said the program is funded entirely by Pacific Bell, which estimates a cost of $50,000 for the first year.

The shelter in Costa Mesa houses 70 to 80 people each night. Some residents with children stay for two months in apartments behind the small house, while others spend the night on cots in the office, Ochs said. The residents have to be working while they stay in the shelter, Ochs added, and "they are required to save 80% of their income." Ochs said the residents must prove they are saving and can spend more than 20% of their income only if they have previous debts to pay.

Several churches in Orange County financially support the shelter, which has four full-time employees and several volunteers. The staff encourages residents to attend local churches, Ochs said, but no religious services are held on shelter premises.

Ochs said there are no plans to expand the existing facility, but they are concerned with "developing any sort of low income housing. There is just no place for minimum-wage people to live in Orange County."

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