Imagine looking for work or an apartment without a telephone. Imagine maintaining a critical relationship without a telephone. Any phoneless or homeless person who tries to obtain work, housing, medical care, or food is at a severe disadvantage in our phone-oriented society. A tidal wave of information is transmitted by telephone today. Homeless people, and other men and women who exist outside normal telephone links, routinely miss chances to find housing, services, and self-sustaining work because they cannot be reached when opportunity calls.
In response to these daunting challenges faced by homeless and otherwise phoneless people, the City of Seattle's Office of Economic Development joined with King County's Planning and Community Development Divisions, and the Seattle-King Country Department of Public Health, to create Community Voice Mail. CVM provides phoneless, homeless, and unemployed persons with 24-hour access to telephone messages they may not otherwise receive from potential employers, landlords, case managers, and providers of critical human services.
Community Voice Mail is dignified, multi-lingual and personalized; it provides the missing link between social service case managers and clients, and between clients and the community. Within minutes on a touch-tone phone, clients learn to use their own 7-digit phone number, record greetings, and retrieve messages with a pass code. CVM bypasses the stigma of homelessness and other potentially negative connotations that promote bias against persons without phones and stable addresses. Before CVM, homeless people trying to integrate themselves into the mainstream by seeking jobs or residences had to depend on an ad hoc method of receiving phone messages at shelters. The reliability of this approach, inconsistent at best, was severely limited by shelter staff's availability.
CVM also enables the phoneless and homeless to navigate through the maze of social services. CVM is a growing, invisible network within the human services community that improves its ability to deliver services to clients. Hence, CVM serves two populations: homeless or phoneless men and women, and their case managers. CVM is a critical new tool for social workers, functioning as a means of keeping in contact with clients and following up with them regarding services and opportunities.
In 1991, the Community Voice Mail pilot program recorded overwhelmingly successful results: 85 percent of users found jobs and 52 percent found permanent housing. During this test phase, nearly 500 incidents of support services (skills training, resume help, day care, tools, transportation, rent/utility help, food shelter, clothes, and medical care) were arranged and facilitated through CVM. This program has the ability to connect people on the periphery of society to the services and opportunities that will pull them back into the mainstream. There is also a humanizing byproduct of obtaining a Voice Mail box that is more difficult to quantify. One user reported getting a message from his family in Chicago singing him "Happy Birthday." Another CVM user said simply, "I would be lost without it." It seems clear that for homeless and otherwise phoneless people in Seattle, Community Voice Mail is nothing less than a lifeline.