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Homeless Man Kept Cyberspace Connections, Now Jailed on Theft Charge

January 29, 1996

NOVATO, Calif. (AP) _ Homeless and living along a highway, Neal Berry spent his meager earnings on a portable computer rather than rent.

Berry slept in a tent on a mattress taken from a trash bin. But he had a laptop computer and a cellular phone with modem, which enabled him to connect to a computer bulletin board, voice mail and a pager service _ all paid for out of his $8-an-hour salary as a shipping and inventory clerk.

On Friday, however, he was arrested and accused of stealing heavy-duty industrial batteries from the state transportation agency to power his equipment.

Highway workers said they found the batteries when they stumbled onto his campsite.

``I just found the batteries,″ Berry told the San Francisco Examiner in a jailhouse interview. ``Apparently someone else put them there a few months ago. I found them and started using them.″

Berry, 22, said he chose to camp by the highway after failing to find an affordable apartment when he moved to the area in 1994.

``In Novato, you can’t even find a single room that costs less than $500 a month,″ he said. ``If I were to have an apartment, I wouldn’t have had any furniture, I’d just barely be able to eat. It would have sucked up all my income.″

Instead, he spent $2,000 for a Toshiba laptop computer and $500 on a modem.

Each month he spent $35 for an account with a computer bulletin board with e-mail; $60 on his cellular phone bill; $50 for membership at a gym where he took showers; $42 for a storage shed for clothes and other possessions he was afraid to keep in the tent, and $12 for a mailbox.

On line, he made more friends in a month than he had all year, he said.

``I’ve never been to jail before,″ he said. ``But there is a bright side: three hots and a cot at taxpayer expense.″

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