The phones can help people with no permanent address stay connected to family and job options.
FORT WORTH, TEXAS -- Homeless for more than a year, Rebecca Carrington can go without her own bed, fancy clothes and most material possessions.
But there is one thing she cannot imagine life without -- her cell phone.
"It's everything," she says, hands stuffed into a hooded black sweatshirt on a chilly day. "How I call my family; how can I try to find an apartment or get a job. I couldn't survive out here without it."
Carrington, 26, is hardly the only person on the streets with a cell phone. In fact, a growing number of the city's homeless will surprise you by whipping Nokias and Motorolas from otherwise empty pockets.
Workers at Fort Worth's homeless shelters say the number of guests with cell phones is growing rapidly. Some shelters have even reported problems with too many guests seeking outlets to charge their phones.
"We used to see people with pagers; now they have cell phones," said Don Sisler, executive director the Union Gospel Mission. "I can't say the majority have them. But those who do use them to manage their lives, just like you and me."
Many homeless people call phones critical tools in getting off the streets. Without a phone number where they can be reached, filling out applications for jobs or housing is often useless.
Some of the shelters have phones that guests can use, but there are rules about when and how long people can talk.
Tracfones or other cheap phones with prepaid minutes can be bought for $10 to $15. They don't require credit checks or contracts, and cards for additional minutes sell for $10 and $20 dollars at convenience stores.
Robert Hinkle, a homeless man staying at the Presbyterian Night Shelter, not only has his own black AT&T flip phone, but he buys cell phones and chargers at flea markets, pays to activate them and sells them to other homeless people.
"I can only sell them for $5 or $6," he says. "They gotta be cheap or no one can afford them. But a lot of people want them."
People with jobs use the phones to check in with their bosses and others reconnect with family members, he said.
"Of course, people can also use them to call their crack dealers," Hinkle said. "I like to hope they use them for the good reasons."
For some, a phone may seem like a final lifeline to the outside world. Carrington considers her MetroPCS phone so important to finding a job and a home and straightening out her life that she cobbles $40 a month for unlimited minutes.
On this day, she killed time in a courtyard outside the Salvation Army shelter. She carried her phone in her hand, waiting for a call-back from a chain gas station where she recently applied for a job.
"I'm hoping I'll get it," she said. "I'm just waiting for the call."