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Libraries on Call

A close-up of the cell phones provided through the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District's Cellphone Lending Program
Each phone in Las Vegas–Clark County (Nev.) Library District’s Cellphone Lending Program was loaded with more than 50 social service provider contacts. Photos: ©carballo/Adobe Stock (person); Las Vegas-Clark County (Nev.) Library District (phone)

When Las Vegas–Clark County (Nev.) Library District (LVCCLD) closed its doors at the start of the pandemic, the technological barriers that existed within the community were laid bare, particularly those affecting people facing homelessness. Last April, LVCCLD launched its Cellphone Lending Program, an innovative approach to providing hundreds of unhoused individuals with access to needed services and social connection. 

Access to technology is key to unlocking opportunities for underserved populations. But when it comes to connecting residents in need with technology, library workers have something else to offer: compassion. Drawing in and establishing trust with people who could benefit from our services is an important way of building community. 

At LVCCLD, we have taken this idea to heart.

In April 2022, we launched a Cellphone Lending Program, which has since provided more than 400 smartphones to people who are currently unhoused, offering them a lifeline to family, support systems, and critical social services.

When our library buildings were closed during the pandemic, we saw an increase in residents visiting our parking lots to use our Wi-Fi to access public services. It dawned on district management that smartphones could be an easy, cost-effective bridge for the information gulf.

We applied for a $200,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and Nevada State Library, intended for improving broadband access for the community. We combined this with funds from the American Rescue Plan Act and, later, the American Library Association’s COVID Library Relief Fund. To launch the program, LVCCLD worked with T-Mobile to secure phones and two local organizations—Nevada Homeless Alliance and Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth—on outreach.

The phones, which are being loaned for an 18-month period, have unlimited calls and 5G hotspot capability. Each phone was programmed with more than 50 social service provider contacts, offering easy assistance for food, health care, housing, and other general services, as well as five of the most used library apps. For those who needed help with their smartphones, LVCCLD and our partners organized a vendor fair alongside the phone distribution, which included training, a Q&A session, and other resources.

At the end of the lending period, recipients will be able to keep their phone and phone number and arrange a contract with any telecom provider at their own expense. To maintain privacy, LVCCLD does not track usage of any pre-installed software.

The idea behind this program is simple: All the outreach and support programs in the world can’t provide people with opportunities if they can’t reach you and you can’t reach them. Many people may not realize the barriers that individuals experience without access to a phone or Wi-Fi. This became especially true during the pandemic, as services are now predominantly accessed via the internet and platforms like Zoom.

A smartphone also promotes safety and stability, enabling users to communicate with case managers, employers, and housing providers. Several participants have reported that after previously losing housing opportunities because they were unreachable, they’ve secured housing thanks to having a call-back number. Phones also provide easier access to health care, including mental health services, via telehealth.

All the outreach and support programs in the world can’t provide people with opportunities if they can’t reach you and you can’t reach them.

In a December 2022 survey with nearly 50 program participants responding, 82% of respondents reported their new phone is their only way to access the internet; 80% said they use the phone to access social services; and 78% said they use it to apply for jobs. Respondents described the phones as a “priceless” and “much-needed” resource. Another said, “I would have never been able to function effectively and efficiently” without the phone.

Access to technology is a basic human right. Our Cellphone Lending Program is an example of how public libraries empower and uplift members of underserved communities by finding innovative ways to expand that access.

We hope this program will continue to grow as we establish future funding and that it can serve as a model for other library systems across the country. Our role is to do what libraries do best: serve as a community hub and bring together the expertise of the partners needed to create a successful program.

The additional ringtones heard in our library parking lots and hallways are the sounds of compassion in our communities, and we are thrilled to have answered that call.

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