Tamara Jensen works with Marielle McKenna, housing transitions program outreach lead at Catholic Charities, to complete her paperwork for the Technology Access Now program. (Courtesy Catholic Charities)
Tamara Jensen works with Marielle McKenna, housing transitions program outreach lead at Catholic Charities, to complete her paperwork for the Technology Access Now program. (Courtesy Catholic Charities)

With just one thing, Catholic Charities clients’ lives were changed. What was it? A cellphone.

The Technology Access Now program, a partnership between Catholic Charities and Providence Health and Services, provides clients with cellphones and or assistance using cellphones. The two-year-old program has already proved transformative.

One client was finally able to find and maintain housing after getting her phone. And now, she’s been able to begin her own hair and makeup business, for which she needed a phone to connect with clients.

Another client was accepted into an employment training program that turned into a full-time job. She was able to attend classes, get interviews and keep a steady job, as well as stay in touch with Catholic Charities’ care team.

Still another client got her phone while sleeping on the streets. She was able to stay connected with Catholic Charities, which became even more important when she developed a bacterial infection during the pandemic. She was able to be referred to a medical motel hosted by Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services and was able to communicate with transportation to take her there. While in the motel, she was able to work with the Catholic Charities care team to fill out paperwork, which would have been impossible at her campsite. Her housing waitlist application and birth certificate application were all completed there.

These women aren’t alone. About 40 have received phones from the Technology Access Now program. Another 30 to 40 have received all of the other benefits from the program, like being able to call if they need help with a phone, connecting with someone and figuring out email.

Father Timothy Bushy was a chief mission integration officer for Providence Health Plan when the health provider began partnering with Catholic Charities on the phone project.

Providence had a desire to look at the connection between technology and better health outcomes for the poor and vulnerable, said Father Bushy. “And a desire to reduce health disparities, I might add.”

When a grant from the Providence Health Plan became available, Catholic Charities pitched the idea of cellphones.

“We’ve seen the frustration with access to cellphones but specifically the phones that clients have access to,” said Jennifer Lucena, homeless services manager at Catholic Charities. Many of Lucena’s clients are eligible to apply for free phones from the government, once referred to as Obama-phones. The application process for getting such phones, however, is long and can be tricky for folks experiencing homelessness who have no address. Once the hurdles of the application are overcome, the phones received are not high quality and are often lost, stolen or damaged. With no income, getting a new phone becomes nearly impossible, said Lucena. Yet without a reliable phone number, it’s nearly impossible to communicate with health care professionals or housing properties. Even if clients are able to get a new phone from the government after one is lost, they will almost certainly not have the same phone number, making the contact information on housing forms and medical forms incorrect.

Together, Providence Health Plan and Catholic Charities teamed up to provide cellphones — plus technical help — to women in Catholic Charities’ Kenton Village and Housing Transition projects.

From Providence’s perspective, the project embodied the company’s mission statement: “As expressions of God’s healing love, witnessed through the ministry of Jesus, we are steadfast in serving all, especially those who are poor and vulnerable.” Providing those vulnerable and living in poverty with access to health services does just that, said Father Bushy. Those in the program are able not only to use telehealth services but now have a way to keep in touch with doctors, advice nurses and other health care providers. Providence Health Plan is committed to the project through its community benefit committee, according to a spokeswoman.

Not all clients in the Technology Access Now program needed cellphones. Some just needed help using the gadgets to contact medical providers and other key people. Some women needed charging packs to charge their phones outside.

“The need was there but just looked different,” said Lucena.

Lucena and her team have been able to help women connect with medical providers, not only using the telehealth applications but also encouraging calls to advice nurses before going to the emergency room, encouraging them to have primary care providers and helping them to schedule appointments.

“It’s not something we really ever did in the housing program, but it’s been wonderful to have staff clued in in that way and have clients clued into what they need to make those calls,” said Lucena. “Health care was made more accessible to women who do have the phones.”

Catholic Charities staff have been able to help their clients feel more comfortable using phones. The pandemic made that comfort and ability to use technology even more important.

“Being able to have a phone number that isn’t going to change, clients have connected with housing, doctors and have had growth and forward movement,” said Lucena. “It’s been wonderful.”

— Sarah Wolf, Catholic Sentinel