Phone Lines on the Line

COVID-era funding for the Veterans Affairs homeless disposable smartphone initiative ends

Sara Lopez was in the U.S. Navy until 2005. Last summer, she was laid off from her preschool teaching job and was struggling. Unemployment wasn’t coming through, so she wasn’t receiving any money and was close to being evicted. Lopez reached out to St. Vincent DePaul and their Support Services for Veteran Families program (SSVF). The program was able to help her with her rent and connected her with other resources such as a cell phone that federal Veterans Affairs gave her. 

In April 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) provided funds to the Veterans Health Administration for disposable smartphones with time-limited data plans that homeless or at-risk veterans could receive. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Homeless Programs Office, smartphones provided through the initiative would become the property of the veteran recipients and wouldn’t ever need to be returned to the VA, which started distributing devices in July 2020. 

Lopez got her smartphone from her caseworker at SSVF in late January 2023. At the beginning of March, she got an email from her daughter’s school that there was a lockdown because of an active shooter alert. She tried to call the school to get more information, but the phone cut out and told her her service was suspended. Her daughter ended up being OK, but Lopez was then scrambling trying to figure out why her service had been cut off and how to now get a new plan. 

At that point, Lopez had some money saved and was able to get a new plan. But she said the effort to get a working plan was significant. 

“It took half of the day of me just sitting on hold with T-Mobile to try to get the account number and the transfer PIN and just a bunch of information I didn’t have because when they gave me the phone, it was just in this cardboard box, not even the iPhone box,” she says. 

Lopez tells Eugene Weekly that while it was a frustrating effort for her, right now she’s not considered homeless and has a lot more resources than a veteran who might be out on the streets.

The VA did not respond to EW’s efforts in trying to get more information on why Lopez’s service was suddenly cut off. However, Joel Gorthy, the communications manager for St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County, says that the COVID-era funding for the VA Homeless Programs Disposable Smartphone Initiative ended and that the time-limited prepaid Verizon plans stopped working around late January. He also says that some phones were distributed with T-Mobile plans that expired more recently, in late February. He says it’s possible a case manager tried to get in contact with Lopez to warn her about the service cutoff, but since he doesn’t personally know Lopez and her situation it’s impossible to know exactly what happened. 

Since the smartphones do not need to be returned to the VA, veterans with the resources have the ability to get their own new plans. 

For veterans with T-Mobile plans, Gorthy suggests calling the company at 1-833-236-1769 or to visit a T-Mobile store. For veterans that had Verizon, he says veterans can dial 611 from their phone or call 1-800-295-1614, or go to a Verizon store. Regardless of what service veterans had originally, he says they should be able to retain their numbers and change them to the carrier of their choice.