Las Vegas Library Provides Smartphones, Unlimited Data to Unhoused Patrons

The Las Vegas–Clark County Library District, in partnership with the Nevada Homeless Alliance and the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, this spring launched a successful cell phone lending program to provide smartphones to people experiencing homelessness.

Exterior of the Clark County Library
The Clark County Library

The Las Vegas–Clark County Library District (LVCCLD), in partnership with the Nevada Homeless Alliance (NHA) and the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth (NPHY), this spring launched a successful cell phone lending program to provide smartphones to people experiencing homelessness. In the program’s current phase, the phones—which are preloaded with LVCCLD apps and resources, as well as phone numbers and contact information for multiple Las Vegas and Clark County social services and employment agencies—are loaned out for 18 months. Funded by a $200,000 grant provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Nevada State Library through the American Rescue Plan Act, the program is believed to be the first of its kind developed by a public library system.

“These devices are a lifeline, reconnecting [recipients] with family, social resources, educational and employment assistance, and so much more,” LVCCLD Executive Director Kelvin Watson said in an announcement. “This program is yet another example of how the library uses technology to empower and uplift people’s lives.”

Watson, who previously served as COO of the Queens Public Library, NY, and Broward County Library, FL, before beginning his current role at LVCCLD in February 2021, told LJ, “I’ve seen the impacts of people living on the streets, and recognizing from previous communities—New York and Broward—what happens if someone gets on the list to get a home, but they don’t have a device for people to call them. My idea was to provide the phones not just as hotspots, but as a means…to become connected.”

The initial grant funding enabled LVCCLD to purchase 383 Motorola “Moto G Pure” phones and cases through T-Mobile. When Watson discussed the program with LJ in July, he said that an additional grant from the American Library Association had supported the purchase of 38 more phones. Nevada-based Premier Wireless Services pre-installed the contacts and website links for social services agencies—such as Nevada’s Child Care and Development Fund; the Three Square food bank; the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) food pantry; and Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada—and library apps including Libby, PressReader, Kanopy, Freegal, and hoopla. Premier Wireless will also provide 5G connectivity for unlimited data and domestic calls for the 18-month lending period, consisting of three consecutive six-month loans. Mobile device management software is also installed so that the phones can be remotely disabled if they are reported lost or stolen.

Distribution of the phones and screening of recipients is handled by NHA and NPHY. LVCCLD “doesn’t have to find the clients or vet the clients,” Watson told LJ. NHA and NPHY “already work with these individuals, and they can do the followup.” The lending criteria the organizations established was straightforward, he said. If a person experiencing homelessness did not already have a device, they were eligible for the program. Watson added that two weeks after the program’s launch in April, “someone reached out to the Nevada Homeless Alliance and said, ‘I’ve got a home now, and I wouldn’t have been able to be contacted if I didn’t have this phone.’ It’s also connecting them with family.”

While many people experiencing homelessness own or have access to mobile phones, having access to a free 18-month calling and data plan could prove to be vital for many. “No digital divide? Technology use among homeless adults,” a 2017 study of 421 homeless adults published in the Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless, revealed that 94 percent of participants owned or had recently owned a cell phone. However, “there was considerable three-month turnover in phones (56 percent) and phone numbers (55 percent)” which impacts long-term connectivity and poses a challenge for people and agencies working to maintain regular contact with these individuals. One third also reported no internet use in the past three months, which likely indicates difficulty paying for data plans.

Catrina Grigsby-Thedford, executive director of the NHA, said that “many people may not realize the barriers that individuals experience when they don’t have access to a phone or Wi-Fi. In this post-pandemic era, services are accessed via the internet or platforms such as Zoom. The Library District’s new cell phone lending program will fill some of those gaps. We are proud to collaborate with the Library District on this barrier-busting partnership.”

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Matt Enis


Matt Enis ( is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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