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PacTel Gift Lets Homeless Ring Up Some Cheer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Offered a brief respite from the spell of bad luck that left him homeless, jobless and on crutches, David Jackson took advantage of a Christmas gift Monday afternoon from a local telephone company--free phone calls to anywhere in the United States.

“It was great,” said the 34-year-old motorcycle mechanic after speaking to his father in Modesto for more than 20 minutes. “I haven’t talked to the old man for at least six months. It was nice to talk to him and hear his voice.”

Jackson and about 30 other people staying at St. Vincent de Paul/Joan Kroc Center, one of the largest homeless shelters in San Diego County, placed calls to loved ones from Minnesota to New York as part of a community service campaign sponsored by PacTel Cellular in San Diego.

PacTel sent workers with mobile cellular phones to San Diego nursing homes, hospitals and shelters beginning Saturday evening, said PacTel spokesman Dennis Ellman.

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“PacTel deals with cellular phones,” he said. “They’re mobile, so they thought they’d reach out to places like St. Vincent de Paul, to people who just can’t afford to make long-distance calls. It’s like a Christmas gift.”

A man who would identify himself only as Conrad wished his brother in Seattle a Merry Christmas.

“I haven’t called him for a long time,” he said. “And I don’t know when I would have called. I did, and I’m just glad I talked to him.”

St. Vincent de Paul regularly houses 450 people each night and serves 2,800 meals each day, said Harvey Mandel, assistant director of the shelter.

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Although the shelter offers a variety of services, including long-term housing, a school and a clinic, long-distance calling “is a service we can’t provide because it’s just too expensive,” he said.

Five cellular phones were set up in a third-floor recreation room at the shelter. A line that had formed outside the door had dwindled, and a few people inside talked for longer than the alloted 10 minutes.

“It’s nice to hear people making these calls,” Ellman said, as he helped people

with phone calls Christmas Eve. “Some of them sound like they haven’t spoken for a long time. . . . They’re really emotional conversations.”

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Ellman said the project will probably cost PacTel about $2,000 in long-distance line fees. Ellman and his brother run the marketing company that is handling the project. He said he visited 10 centers with the phones, including the Hillcrest Receiving Home for children, Harbor View Medical Center, the San Diego Mission for the Homeless and the Senior Community Center downtown. Each center was contacted ahead of time to allow people to sign up for calls.

PacTel is a San Francisco-based subsidiary of Pacific Telesis, Ellman said.

Prince Lawless, 18, and his 8-year-old sister Ashley, passed the receiver between them as they spoke to their aunt in Louisville, Ky.

“I think it was thoughtful of them (PacTel),” Lawless said. “I enjoyed it.”

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Lawless said he was staying at the shelter with his family because of a string of “bad decisions.” He said he hadn’t talked to his aunt for several months and did not have the money to call her.

Jackson said he “broke down” Sunday and called his mother collect, but had not been planning to call his father because of the expense.

“I heard there was free calls,” he said. “I thought they were local, but then I heard they were long distance, and I thought, ‘My God! I have to call my dad.’ ”


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