On First Hill, two men crouch in the enclave of a concrete building. It’s 10:30 p.m. and they’re peering into the cracked screen of an ancient cell phone, which is plugged into an outlet in the wall.
“Don’t tell where it is,” one man pleads when I ask for a comment. “We don’t want it to get locked up.”
For those of us who live indoors, charging a phone is an issue of convenience. The only time we find ourselves with a dead battery is when we forget to bring a charger to work. For unsheltered people, many of whom rely on cellphones and laptops for access to family, friends and social services, the low battery warning is much more dire.
In addition to other necessary daily survival protocol, folks who live outside may also have to spend hours of their time on the hunt for an outlet that’s available and accessible.
Those spaces are exceptionally limited.
“The only place in the entire city of Seattle for a homeless person to go and bring your belongings is the public library or Seattle Center,” says Howard Gale, a transparency activist who’s studied the subject locally. “The library has limited hours, it’s hard to keep your stuff there, and it’s going to generate complaints. So in reality, there’s only one place you can go, be safe, be warm, keep dry and be able to keep your phone or your laptop working to remain connected to family, friends and social services.”
Unfortunately, the Center isn’t a particularly viable option, either; Gale has extensively researched Seattle Center’s efforts to bar unsheltered folks from using its outlets, including limiting hours of access and discouraging people from sitting while they charge.
Another potential location could be Seattle’s open spaces, if the city would allow it. Nearly every park in Seattle has outlets, though often they’re physically locked. For a fee, the city of Seattle will open outlets for special events, offering a rare window of power for folks living outside. Multiple people shared stories about using the power strips of holiday light displays.
Private businesses are also typically off-limits. A woman who goes by the name Vu tells me that charging your phone is “a loitering issue,” and that if you’re sleeping outside, you’re less likely to be welcomed into most establishments.
“I have to carry all of my stuff,” she says, “so I can’t even go inside and sit long enough.” Instead, she tells me, she relies on someone else to go to a cafe and charge her phone for her.
Access to power is a necessity. A dead battery can mean missing out on a shelter bed or, worse, a housing assignment after a long wait. And yet, it’s just one more invisible way that life is just a little more difficult for our unsheltered neighbors.