British Columbia

A Vancouver man is mapping the city's remaining payphones. Here's why

Companies like Telus and Bell say payphone usage has declined as mobile phones have become more prevalent. But Stanley Woodvine says there are people who still need them, especially those who are homeless. 

Stanley Woodvine says homeless people need access to the few phones left

Stanley Woodvine near a payphone in Vancouver's Fairview neighbourhood. Woodvine says there are still people who need to use payphones. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Vancouverite Stanley Woodvine was chatting with a friend recently when he was shocked to discover that a derelict-looking payphone near Cambie and Broadway still actually works. 

Woodvine, a former graphic designer and illustrator who has been homeless for 15 years, knew that cellphones can get broken, stolen or lost — especially for people like him and his homeless friends who carry the bulk of their belongings around with them. 

"Many of my homeless peers actually still care where the payphones are," Woodvine said over his phone from outside a McDonald's in the Fairview area, where he sleeps in a nearby parkade.

"Every homeless person I know seems to have a payphone that they sort of keep in their back pocket in case their phone breaks or they run out of minutes."

The conversation got Woodvine, 57, thinking — where did Vancouver's remaining payphones remain? A callout on Twitter led to a few clues, and from there he began to create an online map to document his findings.

Companies like Telus and Bell, which install and maintain payphones across the province, say payphone usage has declined as mobile phones have become more prevalent. 

Bell said it has 20,000 fewer payphones Canada-wide than it did five years ago, with the majority located in Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba. 

But Woodvine and organizations like the Union Gospel Mission say there are people who still need them, especially those who don't have a place to call home. 

"It's a huge problem for our guests when they don't have a phone," said UGM spokesperson Jeremy Hunka, adding that the organization's residents need phones to get jobs, access services and connect with family.

"It's an incredible barrier to moving forward in so many respects." 

Payphones at Waterfront station in Vancouver. Bell says it has 13 functioning payphones in Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Illicit activity

Woodvine hasn't used a payphone in years. He pays about $50 a month for a cellphone with data, but he rarely uses it to call anyone. 

Instead, he uses his phone to access entertainment or tether to his laptop when he's posting to his blog.

"I guess it's because I'm homeless and so I don't actually have a lot of people that I'm calling," he said.  

A payphone pictured at Main and 16th in Vancouver. Stanley Woodvine's map lists it as still functioning as of July 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Any calls that do come from his phone are usually from friends who have asked to borrow it because theirs is broken, stolen or they have run out of minutes they can't afford. Often, he admits, it's so they can buy drugs. 

Woodvine concedes that payphones are often associated with illicit or unsavoury behaviour, and that store owners may not want them nearby. He says that's why many of his homeless friends aren't keen to disclose their location, lest they be taken away.

TELUS said it costs up to $7,000 to replace a payphone, and the company generally removes them upon a landlord's request — usually because it isn't being used, it's being vandalized or they want to put something else in its place. 

But Woodvine says it's not just people who are homeless who need payphones. Anyone could potentially need one if their cellphone breaks, is lost or stolen, or its battery runs out. 

"A payphone represents a telephone of last resort for anyone," he said.

Free phone service

So far, Woodvine's map lists about 22 payphones, including some that no longer work.

Bell confirmed it has 13 functioning payphones in Vancouver, and TELUS said it has 336 in Metro Vancouver, with most being in transportation hubs, hospitals, prisons and at some corner stores. 

Hunka, the Union Gospel Mission spokesperson, says his organization offers phones and computers people can use during drop-in hours. 

A payphone at the West End community centre in Vancouver. Telus says it has 336 payphones in Metro Vancouver, with most being in transportation hubs, hospitals, prisons and at some corner stores. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

UGM is also one of about 120 partners for Lu'Ma Native Housing Society's Community Voice Mail program, which gives anyone who needs it a phone number.

"It's a really, really good program," Hunka said.

Calls to the program's phone numbers go straight to a voicemail account the user sets up, which they can check at their convenience and use for job applications and other services.

The program has about 1,700 users in Metro Vancouver. The program spokesperson says many of them are seniors who can't afford a landline or cellphone on their tight incomes. 

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

With files from Ashley Moliere

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