Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Feeling Poor? Give Something Away.

It's nearly a new year, and it's going to be a challenging one on a personal, societal and global basis. With all the news about economic gloom and doom and the resulting increases in poverty and crisis (some of it repeated on this blog!), it was great to come across this article by Gretchen Rubin. "How To Make Yourself Happier During the Economic Crisis" offers some simple actions for reducing the feelings of anxiety and powerlessness that a lot of people are feeling, and through these actions, you can start to have an impact on poverty and other issues in your community.

Rubin offers this simple concept:
"although we assume that we act because of the way we feel, often we feel because of the way we act.... If you don't like the way you're feeling, take action in the opposite direction...If you're feeling poor, give something away. If you're feeling powerless, take control of something."
Rubin says that when we think about helping those living in poverty (for example), we usually think about donating money or time (volunteering). If we think "I can't afford to give money" or "I just don't have time to volunteer," your feelings of anxiety and powerlessness increases. If you find some way to give, however, you'll find that you can afford to donate and that you do have enough time to help, and you'll realize that you can have an impact on the problems that are keeping you up at night. It doesn't have to be a big check or a big effort; just something small, intentional, and constant. Empty your change jar each month and donate the money. Give blood. Become an organ donor. Whatever you can, but do it regularly and with purpose.

Simple stuff, right? Pretty obvious? But if you're like me, you may find yourself focused on the negative a lot, reading the papers too deeply and thinking "there's nothing I can do about all the terrible things going on in the world." If you feel this way, act the opposite. Change the way you feel through simple action. It will make you happier, and improve the lives of others.

From everyone here at the Community Voice Mail National Office, and on behalf of the 46 CVM sites around the country, we wish you a happy, healthy, and safe 2009.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Federal Funds Supporting CVM "Wasteful"? We Think Not

Earlier this week, U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-OK), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, released a report entitled "2008: Worst Waste of the Year," highlighting 65 federally-funded programs and projects that he believes are wasteful. In all, these projects accounted for $1.3 billion in expenditures.

Included among these 65 programs/projects is the $15,000 that Summit County (Ohio) received to start a Community Voice Mail (CVM) program for low-income and homeless people in this area of the state. While this program in Ohio won't launch until early 2009, I thought it would be interesting to write about the Community Voice Mail program we launched earlier this year in Tulsa, the second largest city in Senator Coburn's home state. Sen. Coburn may not know this, but the Tulsa CVM program also received funding ($12,500) from a federal Block Grant in 2008. He may be interested to hear just how "wasteful" this expenditure has been in Tulsa, and why CVM shouldn't be included in his report.

The Tulsa CVM program is hosted by the Tulsa Day Center for the Homeless, which provides a safe shelter for Tulsa's homeless population. It launched on February 14, when the first voice mail client (Carl Irving) dialed his number to hear a message left for him by Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor. Since that day, the Tulsa CVM program has grown in size and impact:
  • 566 Tulsans have received CVM numbers thus far, and they represent a diverse population. 15% are Veterans. 37% are women. 33% indicate they have a disabling condition. Most are between the ages of 26 and 59, but 12% are younger than 25 and 4% are 60 or older. Most startling is that 24% of Tulsa CVM clients indicate they have dependent children, for a total of 370 children dependent upon the CVM client for their livelihood. Community Voice Mail is a tool that benefits entire families.
  • As clients enter the program, they are asked to establish goals for using the service, and we track their rates of success in achieving these goals. In Tulsa, 81% of the clients who have thus far reported an outcome indicate that they have achieved at least one of their stated goals, including, 63 who found jobs and 57 who found housing. While we never claim that having a CVM number is wholly responsible for a positive client outcome, it is significantly more difficult to land a job, find housing, stay in touch with case managers or achieve other goals without a phone number. Tulsa CVM is a tool for helping people become stable, productive, wage-earning and tax-paying members of the community.
  • 30 social service agencies in Tulsa are now providing CVM numbers to clients who are seeking help but don't have a reliable phone number with which they can be contacted. These agencies provide a broad range of services in Tulsa; from health care and help getting a job, to schools communicating with students of homeless families and help for people seeking safety from domestic violence. 20% of Tulsa CVM's agencies provide health care services, and the Tulsa Day Center also offers a medical clinic. According to the clinic director there, being able to reach a client with a voice message has made a significant impact on their ability to deliver medical care: clients can now receive timely information about lab results and medicine dosages; scheduling appointments for such things as check-up, chemotherapy and even surgery is now easier. As the clinic director says, "CVM has certainly made my case management easier and allowed better care for our clients." Imagine how hard it would be for a doctor to communicate with a patient without being able to call them?
  • One unique feature of CVM is the ability to send "broadcast" voice messages to all clients in Tulsa. The manager of the program at the Tulsa Day Center uses this technology to routinely send information about jobs, health care, local events, and even emergency weather information (it gets cold in Tulsa, and they have tornadoes). Since February, more than 140 messages have been sent. Case managers at the agencies distributing CVM numbers can also send broadcast messages, thereby saving time and money that would otherwise be spent dialing individual phone numbers or (more likely) tracking down individual clients. It's a highly time- and cost-efficient system. Without CVM, it's unlikely that this information would ever reach this population.
  • Why don't Tulsa CVM clients just use cell phones? Most Tulsa clients report no monthly income at all, and the average for those that do is $562/month. A low-cost cell phone costing $35/month would represent 6% of the monthly income of our clients who report income. If you think 6% doesn't sound like a lot, calculate what 6% of your own income is, and think how hard it would be to part with that amount each month for your cell phone. For many clients, a mobile phone is simply out-of-reach. A CVM number provides a reliable phone number on which important messages can be accessed.

Tulsa Community Voice Mail is part of a network of similar programs in 46 U.S. cities, and more than 40,000 low-income and homeless people use this service each year. The success of this program is evident in each city in which it is offered. It's such an obviously good idea, it is highly cost-effective, and it works. It is anything but "wasteful." We even recycle our numbers when a client no longer needs it!

Some of the 65 programs or projects profiled in Senator Coburn's list may indeed be wasteful, and of course, no one should tolerate waste, particularly in this increasingly difficult economy. Community Voice Mail, in Tulsa or (soon) in Summit County Ohio, just doesn't belong in this document. If anything, it deserves even more support from the federal government, in addition to the strong support it already receives from local and national foundations, governments, corporations and individuals.

We've also prepared a press release and fact sheet about this, with comments from CVM supporters who work to prevent homelessness in the U.S..

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Free Mobile Phones in Four States

As I mentioned in June, low-income people in ten states and the District of Columbia may soon be able to get free mobile phones + minutes through SafeLink Wireless, a spin-off of TracFone Wireless that is authorized to make free phones available to this population using money from the Universal Service Fund (via the Lifeline program). Clients who qualify will receive a free phone and 68-80 minutes of free service each month, for as long as they're eligible for the program.

This program is now available in four states: Florida, Tennessee, Massachusetts and Virginia, with more to come, including New York, Pennsylvania, N. Carolina and D.C. (states with CVM programs). Eligibility varies from state to state, but in general, if you're already receiving assistance from a State or Federal assistance program like Food Stamps, Medicaid or Federal Public Housing Assistance, and you meet certain income requirements, this program is for you. See the faq for more information for each state.

We're encouraging our clients in these states to take advantage of this program, and want to work with TracFone to market and distribute phones to eligible CVM users. Using Lifeline funds to get lower-cost landlines doesn't make sense for every individual; more and more people (even low-income people, and a lot of CVM clients) want wireless. A good idea, and we hope it's successful so other carriers will follow suit.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

"Nouveau Poor" in Los Angeles

The LA Homeless blog references a recent article in the LA Times which serves as a high-level primer for the "newly poor" in Southern California, focusing on how people who are new to deprivation can obtain food, housing, and healthcare. The information in this "consumer guide for the nouveau poor" is pretty startling, but it's likely that similar things are happening around the country. Here are the high(low)lights:
  • LA County 211, an information and referral line that people call to find out about services, is taking over 50,000 calls a month now. Last year at this time, they were taking 30,000, so a 67% increase.
  • Demand for food from the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank is up 41% over last year, but the supply of food has only increased by 33%. The 400 pantries in this network are handling the shortfall by giving less food, and/or serving fewer people.
  • Subsidized low-income housing is extremely scarce. The waiting list for Section 8 housing (a Federal subsidy program) is closed, and while it may reopen in early 2009, it is expected that only 3,000-4,000 families may be placed in housing through this program. 300,000 are expected to apply. Those who stay on the waiting list "may get placed in five to ten years." Approximately 17,000 people are on the waiting list for subsidized apartments owned by the LA Housing Authority, and there's only a 3% vacancy rate. While waiting for housing, most people in need likely move in with family or friends, crowd into other housing, live in a car, or end up on the streets.
  • If you don't qualify for the state Medicare systems, you'll have to rely on the healthcare system subsidized by LA County. Non-emergent or preventative care appointments, like routine check-ups, can be "difficult if not impossible" to obtain. Non-ambulance visits to the emergency room can result in very long waits.
Much of this will likely be new to people who have never been homeless, hungry or without medical insurance. As the article says
"If you've been a low-income mother of five, you know all the agencies and the nonprofits where you can get help," said John Kim, director of the Healthy City project that is working on a consumer-friendly online guide to these resources.

"But if you just lost your home and your job, you're new to this world. You are looking around, saying, 'Where do I turn?' "
And to this I would add "and when you can't afford your phone anymore, how do you stay in touch with employers, friends/family and others trying to help you"?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Poverty Trends in Google Search

(Greetings to Community Voice Mail supporters who are visiting for the first time. Thanks for reading the email we sent you today, and I hope you enjoy the blog!).

Google.org, the philanthropically-inclined arm of Google, recently launched an interesting site called Flu Trends. By analyzing billions of Google searches made over time for words related to the flu (think "flu shots," "body aches" and other such things), Google determined that what people were searching for could describe actual flu activity about 2 weeks sooner than the data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control. In other words, if a lot of people in Alabama are using Google to search for words related to the flu, this turns out to be a good indicator of actual flu incidence in that state. This is a grossly simplified description of what Google did to analyze the data, but it's a really interesting and useful development that will have implications for other areas.

For instance...given the economic downturn, what if this trend analysis was directed towards Google searches for terms related to poverty? Are there an increasing number of searches using keywords that might be indicative of increases in homelessness, hunger, the need for services and other poverty indicators?

As an experiment, I conducted a very simple search using Google Trends, including just 3 terms: "unemployment benefits," "homeless" and "food stamps." Here's the resulting trend chart for 2008 thus far:

(here's a link to the actual search, for a better view and to let you tweak the search)

Google and the CDC have an army of Ph.D's working on Flu Trends, and I don't pretend to fully understand how Google Trends works. This simple chart, however, appears to indicate that searches for these items are generally trending up in the last half of this year, at least relative to "unemployment benefits" as a search term. Are more people in the U.S. seeking information about food stamps, unemployment benefits and homelessness because they are increasingly hungry, out of work, and suddenly facing life without a roof overhead? Are these symptoms of "economic flu"?

I hope that Google and others use these amazing new databases to start predictive tracking of other ills in society. For the time being, wash your hands, cover your cough, and pinch your pennies.

Monday, November 24, 2008

November CVM eNewsletter

The November enewsletter from the Community Voice Mail National Office here in Seattle was just sent to 1500 CVM friends and supporters today. Included is a note from Jenn Brandon (our executive director) about what we're up to, the launch of three new CVM sites around the country, and a great story about how we used broadcast messaging to help a Tulsa CVM client (Ms. Betty) register to vote for the first time in 10 years.

Happy Thanksgiving to all our readers in the U.S., and especially to the managers of CVM programs around the country. And of course, to the people using our voice mail system.

Friday, November 21, 2008

CVM...M? CVM Going Mobile

We provide free voice mail boxes to lower-income and homeless people who don't have a reliable phone number of their own. Our service and our clients are more successful when people check their messages frequently, to hear broadcast messages about jobs, messages from case managers about housing, and messages from friends and loved ones. We've asked our clients, and most of them (71%) find free phones to check their voice mail, or use payphones (19%). More often than not, this means that our clients are only checking their messages when they happen to be at a social service agency, and only when that agency happens to be open. Or, when they happen to find a payphone when more than 15% of all payphones disappeared in a single year (2007). I've talked with clients who had to take two buses just to find a phone. When phone access isn't ubiquitous, our service suffers, and so do our clients.

Last month, I wrote about mobile phones and poverty, and how we were embarking on a plan to bring lower-cost mobile phones to our clients. In addition to a lot of research about carriers, handsets and the economics of the industry, we've also started asking our clients what they want us to do. In mid-October, we organized a meeting with 11 Los Angeles CVM clients who own mobile phones, and spent a couple of hours gathering some great insight. Here are some of the important things we learned:
  • First and foremost, although they all own mobile phones, every attendee said that their Community Voice Mail number is their main number, the one they give out to potential employers and others. They count on this reliable number in a way that they can't with their mobile number; if they can't pay for their mobile phone in a given month, the service can go away. Or, the phone could be lost, stolen or damaged. The CVM number, however, is always there.
  • Most of the attendees use prepaid phones as opposed to phones requiring a monthly or yearly contract. This makes sense; prepaid allows them to add minutes to their phones when they can afford to, and there's no requirement to have an address or a credit card. Because prepaid is more expensive on a per-minute basis, our clients use their mobile minutes very judiciously; they don't give their mobile number out to just anyone, but reserve its use for returning important calls or staying in touch with family and others who can help them.
  • "Cheaper minutes" was at the top of the list of what they'd like to see in a mobile phone program for CVM clients. Most prepaid services also carry a $1/day use fee (i.e. you get charged $1 on any day you actually use the phone, in addition to the minutes you use), and understandably, this wasn't very popular. Most were using very basic phones; cameras, MP3 players and other things weren't that important to this group. They just want a low-cost phone that works.
  • All the attendees had email addresses, but only two accessed email on their phone, most likely because of the additional cost. We've found that about 59% of our clients nationally have email addresses, and we're going to try to make a lower-cost data plan and Internet-enabled handset part of our program. Our clients access computers primarily at libraries or at social service agencies, so access to the Internet is almost as inconvenient as access to a phone. We want to be able to send voice, email and text messages to our clients, and point them to web resources that they can instantly access. Some may say this is an extravagance for low-income people; we believe it's cheaper to provide an Internet-enabled phone to people who may be a long way away from PC ownership.
With this information, and a lot of thinking by CVM Managers around the country, we plan to implement a handful of projects around the country beginning in early 2009 that will help bring mobile phones to CVM clients. With 40,000 clients using CVM, and more than 2,000 agencies in 46 cities distributing numbers, we have the capacity to deliver a decent niche market to the right carrier. Tied to the CVM voice mail service, we believe the impact of this program will be of huge benefit to our clients as they move out of poverty and crisis.

Please post a comment if you have any thoughts about how we can bring mobile phones to our low-income and homeless clients. Email me if you'd like to help.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Phoneless Veterans

When I talk about Community Voice Mail, I sometimes find myself reverting to the simplistic view of what we do and who we serve: "We provide free voice mail boxes to homeless people." The reality is a lot more complex, and as it's Veterans Day, I wanted to write about the thousands of veterans who are using Community Voice Mail to improve their lives.

We ask for a lot of information from our clients, and below is some of the data about the more than 4,000 veterans who have used our service in the past few years. These statistics in no way captures the breadth of the veterans population we serve, but some of the data is astounding:
  • 90% are male, and about 10% are female. We've provided voice mail to at least 7 transgender vets.
  • 61% are between the ages of 45-69, with 31% between 26-44. Only 2% are younger than 25, and as soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan, we hope these numbers stay low.
  • 27% have a disabling condition, presumably as a direct result of their military service.
  • 71% tell us they have no monthly income at all, while 26% make less than $1,000 a month.
  • Half are Black/African-American, 45% identify as White, and the rest are American Indian/Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander or Asian.
  • 10% report having children as dependents, with at least 731 total kids dependent on our clients. Community Voice Mail is often a resource for entire families.
  • 47% of those who identify as "homeless" live in emergency shelters , while 34% live in transitional housing and 15% live on the street.
  • 17% have provided us with their email addresses, which we use to send messages about jobs, housing, events, and other local resources. It's likely that a higher percentage of these veterans use email; based on other client surveys, we estimate that 59% of our total clients have email addresses.
  • When our clients are provided with a voice mail box, we ask them what their goals are for using the service. 87% of our veteran clients have goals related to employment, 73% list housing, and 58% list health care or social services. For those vets who reported an outcome to us, approximately 65% said they had achieved their goals, and 95% told us that having a Community Voice Mail box was either "very helpful" or "somewhat helpful" in this pursuit.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that 154,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, with perhaps twice as many experiencing homelessness over the course of the year. The number of homeless Vietnam era veterans is actually greater than the number of service persons who died during that war. It is estimated that veterans account for 23% of all homeless people in America.

Most veterans, of course, are not homeless or in danger of becoming so. Especially on this day, however, it's important to remember that nearly 1/3 of the homeless people you see on the streets where you live have worn a uniform and served this country.

If you'd like to hear the story of a particularly inspiring veteran who uses Community Voice Mail as a tool to rebuild his life, I suggest you listen to this.

We're proud to be able to help...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"Advice for the New Paupers"

In a previous post, I wondered how people who find themselves newly poor will learn how to navigate the social services that might help them. Asking one of my CVM colleagues this question, I was told "things tend to crumble, not collapse, for those entering poverty," which seems pretty close to the mark. It's not often the case that someone suddenly finds themselves broke, homeless and on the streets; it's more likely that they live just above the line but dip beneath it for periods of time as they encounter more problems. Assuming people in this position can get specific help (with a job, housing, etc.), it may be that they can avoid the kind of poverty that leads to homelessness.

Jon Dolan recently published an excellent article on Alternet called "5 Pieces of Advice for the New Paupers" describing his experiences living in poverty. The article doesn't go into a lot of detail about what caused this descent (in his case, a three-month process), but instead focuses on what he learned once he got there. It's a fascinating and scary article, covering everything from the primacy of warmth and why it's necessary to be somewhat pushy at food banks, to the way your sense of shame fades once you've experienced cold and hunger and how you eventually won't mind the smells anymore because everyone smells.

Dolan describes the bitterness you'll feel living like this, and how you have to find a way to shut that off. After describing a job interview that didn't go too well, he says
After months of being a bum, I was the wrong volume, the wrong temperature....You'll find that if you want to get back into that quiet, odor-free, polite world, you're going to have to decompress for a few months. What happened to us is that we fled, found a basement apartment on borrowed money, and stayed there, keeping the heat on high for months. Then we were ready to try again for a job.
This article, and the many follow-up comments, are worth reading. Let's hope those slipping into poverty find their right volume, their right temperature.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Mobile Phones and Poverty

Today is Blog Action Day (see my previous post about this), with the focus this year on poverty. As I write this, we're getting ready to conduct a focus group in Los Angeles with 18 Community Voice Mail clients who own mobile phones. Because we offer voice mail to low-income and homeless people in 46 places in the U.S., it's important that our clients have access to phones. Payphones are increasingly not a solution (200k, or 17% of the total in the U.S., were taken out of commission in 2007), and through surveys we've learned that our clients mostly rely on free phones at social service agencies to check their voice mail. Because 21% of our clients own mobile phones, we want to talk to them and find out more about how they're using them, what they pay, where they buy them, and a host of other questions. Our goal is to figure out an economically feasible way to give mobile phones to tens of thousands of our clients around the country, and tap into the power of mobile access to telecommunications (and email, the Web, etc.) to help our clients climb out of poverty.

A lot of effort is being made to use mobile phones in developing countries to bring people out of poverty (read MobileActive to get a good overview of some of what's being done). But there doesn't appear to be a lot being done for poor people in the U.S.. I guess it's assumed that even the lowest-income Americans can afford a phone now, or maybe there just isn't the business opportunity with low-income people in the U.S. that there is with the billions of people in developing countries. To us, there remains a huge gap in the U.S. between those who have access to basic telecommunications and those that don't, and this is most powerfully represented as an information gap. Without a phone, or reliable access to one, it's very hard to stay in touch with the people you depend on for support (friends, family), help (social workers, doctors), or your livelihood (employers and potential employers). Moreover, for our clients, lack of access to a phone makes it harder to take advantage of the information we're sending over broadcast voice messages every day; messages about jobs, housing, food, health care, emergency weather alerts and other information most people take for granted. There is tremendous opportunity in the U.S. to bring affordable mobile phones tied to the right information services to low-income people in the U.S.. And we're going to do this.

We sent a broadcast voice message to 800 active CVM clients in Los Angeles, seeking 18 people who own mobile phones to come to a meeting and talk to us about their experiences. Within 48 hours, we received more than 80 responses from people willing to spend the time to help us figure this out. I'm looking forward to tomorrow as the start of a big change, and can't wait to meet our clients.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Newly Homeless, New to Social Services

This image, which I found on PATH's always good LA Homeless Blog, speaks volumes about the current economic crisis in the U.S.. As the economy deteriorates and jobs are lost, there will undoubtedly be a huge influx of people seeking "services" from government and nonprofit agencies, and it's likely that many of these people may never have sought such services before. While many people have been without work at some point in their lives and may know how to look for a job, how many have had to seek shelter? Or free health care? Or food? Or any of the other basic services most people usually take for granted?

Here at Community Voice Mail, we've been talking a lot about the information needs of people living in poverty, and how they gain access to this information. Chris Le Dantec, a Ph.D candidate in the Human Centered Computing program at Georgia Tech, spoke last week at our national conference. He talked about his research with clients of two social service agencies, and the role that technology (broadly defined) plays in how they access information and in how they manage their own identities. Mobile phones, for example, have great value for low-income people not only as communication devices but also as a sign of some life stablility and as a social symbol. Other researchers, such as Julie Hersberger and Donna Beegle, have also written about how people living in poverty access and share information, and this is helping to shape the future direction of our information delivery system (formerly known simply as "our voice mail service"). It seems there is a learning curve for figuring out how to function within this social service world, and how to access the things you need to survive. The longer you've been in this state of crisis and transition, the more knowledge you've acquired about how the "system" works, and the more you've learned about how to access the information you need.

I wonder, however, about the people who may soon experience homelessness for the first time due to foreclosure, or those who lose their jobs and have no financial or social safety net to protect them from poverty. If this is the first time they've needed the kind of help provided by nonprofits and government-run agencies, how will they find out about them? And will the help available meet their expectations, or (more likely) will they find resources scarce, agencies underfunded, and demand exceeding supply for all things? What would I do if I woke up tomorrow and had absolutely nothing? Where would I start?

There has been a strong undercurrent of poverty in this country that has largely been overlooked by those not directly experiencing it. I fear this undercurrent may become more of a tsunami in the near future, with a lot of people seeking information about services and finding out how difficult it is to find. We have a lot of work to do, and quickly.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Community Voice Mail in Second Life

Update: Jessica, who wrote this post, spoke about CVM's use of Second Life at the N2Y3 NetSquared conference earlier this may. Here's a video of her presentation.

Jessica Dally here at the Community Voice Mail National Office has been working on our presence in Second Life. Recognizing that many people don't know what Second Life is (aren't we all still trying to live our First Lives?), she's written this brief primer about Second Life and why CVM has a presence there:

What is Second Life (SL)?
Well… to quote from Second Life itself, it’s a "3D virtual world imagined and created entirely by its residents. " But really, that doesn’t explain it very well does it?

Think of Second Life kind of like a game. It’s a bit like The Sims, but instead of each person you interact with being a computer-generated character, each person you interact with in SL is a computer-generated manifestation of an actual person somewhere else in the world. In that way it’s a bit like a 3D Instant Message. A person downloads a computer program and runs it, just like any other “game,” but once in this game they can interact with other people all over the world, build stuff, program stuff… you name it.

Why is Community Voice Mail in Second Life?
While it’s easy to think of Second Life as a game, it’s really more like a whole new version of the internet or an incredibly intense social networking site. And just like having a website, more and more business, nonprofit communities and even funders are operating in this Virtual World. But unlike most websites, Second Life is free.

CVM National first established an office in Second Life at the Nonprofit Commons, an area set up specifically for nonprofits by Ashne Chung, the first person to earn 1 million real dollars in Second Life (as opposed to Lindens, the in-world SL currency) . Now our office has moved to the Nonprofit Commons 2 site, put on by Taking IT Global. This office gives us a bit more room to explain what we do and the space has allowed us to build an interactive exhibit to answer questions CVM is often asked, such as “how do clients access their voicemail?” or “why can’t clients just use cell phones?" It’s a place where people can come to check out what we do and learn more about our organization. It’s also a great way for us to meet with other nonprofits/NGOs around the world, to find partners and make connections.

To date we’ve found champions for our cause in many areas. People who are helping with Hurricane Ike, Military vets, people from the telecommunications industry and others have all been introduced to CVM thanks to the presence we’ve established in Second Life. We’ve found new agencies that want to provide free voice mail boxes to low-income and homeless people in their (real life) communities, and people who would like to volunteer in some way. While we have no real way of knowing what will come in the future from our presence in Second Life, thus far it has been time well spent.

Try it yourself! Once you’ve registered for Second Life and downloaded the client, and you can find our our office space at this SLurl (Second Life URL). Have fun, and see you in Second Life (or perhaps in First Life if you happen to be in the Seattle area).

Blog Action Day (focus on Poverty)

Here's a good idea. Ask bloggers of all stripes and from all countries to post about a single issue on one day of the year, to increase awareness and trigger conversation about the issue. This year, Blog Action Day is all about poverty. Through the posts of thousands of bloggers (and podcasters, and videocasters), a conversation about poverty will occur that hopefully will lead to new knowledge, new solutions and new collaborations. As of today, nearly 5,000 bloggers have registered, reaching at least 9.5 million of their readers.

If you blog, please consider participating on October 15. CVM is, and we look forward to reading your post about poverty. And please tell your friends (bloggers and otherwise).

Friday, September 19, 2008

Voice Mail for Hurricane Ike Evacuees

The story has all but disappeared from the National media, but the after effects of Hurricane Ike are still being felt acutely by people in Galveston and other coastal communities. Many people forced to evacuate have landed in other Texas cities like Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas, and many are without a reliable means to communicate with friends and loved ones. Some may not have arrived with their mobile phones, and many may not have had mobile phones to begin with. Arriving in a strange city with only the clothes on your back is scary enough; imagine not having a way for people to get in touch with you.

The Community Voice Mail programs in Austin and San Antonio are now working with other local charities and FEMA to make free voice mail boxes available to Ike evacuees in those cities. Not only will recipients be able to provide this number to their friends and loved ones, but they can also receive broadcast voice mail messages from our local CVM Managers providing them with accurate, timely information about available services, etc. Obtaining accurate information during and after an emergency is very difficult, and we hope these Community Voice Mail boxes will help.

Houston was also hit hard by Hurricane Ike, and while the Houston CVM office hasn't officially reopened for business, CVM clients in that city are still getting broadcast voice and email messages about emergency services from Scot More, the Houston CVM Manager. Take a look at the Houston CVM blog to see the information that Scot is making available to his clients and others in the city. (These blog postings reproduce information sent by broadcast voice and email messages to CVM clients in Houston).

Finally, if you want to see some amazing photos of Hurricane Ike, be sure to see the set of photos compiled by the Boston Globe. The photo above was taken from this archive. It shows a block in downtown Houston located approximately 6 blocks from the Houston CVM office. Wow. (Photo credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip, Sept. 13, 2008)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Three New CVM Sites!

We're very happy to announce that Community Voice Mail is now being offered in Albuquerque (New Mexico) and South Florida, and will soon be offered in the Inland Empire of Southern California. Thousands of social service agencies in these areas will be able to provide Community Voice Mail numbers to their clients, and start broadcasting information about job opportunities, housing availability, local training events and other resources directly to them. Congratulations to the agencies hosting these new CVM programs, and thanks for showing leadership in your communities.

CVM Available Now in:
(You can read more about South Florida CVM on their blog).

CVM Available Soon in:
  • The Inland Empire of Southern California (Counties of San Bernardino, Riverside and parts of Los Angeles): Hosted by Inland Empire United Way

This the second Los Angeles-area CVM: read this for more about the program in Central Los Angeles. A complete list of the 43 CVM sites around the U.S. can be found here.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

CVM Client Survey Results

From time to time, we ask the people who use our service some questions to find out more about how they use it, and how we might improve it. Earlier this year, we sent a survey (by voice mail, of course) to more than 11,000 active CVM clients, asking them a set of questions about the phones they use, their use of email, the kind of information that is most important to them, and also what their lives would be like if they didn't have their Community Voice Mail number. About 1,700 people responded, and we learned a lot:
  • Our clients find "free" phones. 71% say they use the free phone available at many social service agencies or other locations when they want to check their voice mail or return calls. 19% regularly use payphones, and 10% use a mobile phone.
  • Our clients are wired. 59% have an email address, and use it on a regular basis at public libraries or other locations with free access to connected computers.
  • Our clients use mobile. 21% own mobile phones, and likely purchase prepaid minutes available everywhere.
  • Our clients want information. Clients overwhelmingly indicated that they are most interested in receiving information about employment and housing. Clearly, stable employment and a safe place to live are important to our clients.

This is great data, and we're already acting on it. For the past 8 months, CVM clients who provide email addresses when they sign up automatically receive brief notification messages in their email inboxes whenever they have a CVM voice mail message waiting for this. This indicator helps our clients know when they should find a phone to check their messages. We've also created email distribution lists ("listservs") that we're using to send by email the information we're also sending by broadcast voice mail. So, client with email addresses are getting regular announcements about jobs, training opportunities, community events and other useful information. On the mobile front , we're formulating projects that will put low-cost phones in the hands of our clients, to help them achieve their near-term life goals. The mobile projects will be extensions of the pilot projects we conducted in Houston and Minneapolis/St. Paul last year, using phones and service generously donated by Working Assets (now Credo). Finally, many CVM programs around the country are providing information about jobs to clients through voice and email messaging, and working with local WorkSource/One Stop agencies to coordinate activities. There is a lot more we can and will be doing in this area. Matching our clients to viable employment opportunities is a great fit for our technology and the CVM federation infrastructure. Stay tuned.

When you ask the people you're trying to help what they need and want, you get a lot of great information! What a concept!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Houston CVM Blog Launches

The Houston CVM program just launched a blog with an innovative purpose: to catalog the valuable information being sent via broadcast voice and email messaging to Houston CVM clients and the agencies that serve them. Scot More, the manager of the Houston CVM program, sends daily broadcast email and voice messages to thousands of CVM clients in the Houston area, providing them with information about employment opportunities, events, health care opportunities and other resources. If you're a CVM client, or a case manager at more than 75 social service agencies providing CVM numbers to people who need them, you automatically get these messages in your voice mail box and a text version in your email inbox. With the Houston CVM blog, you now have a place to view this information on the Web, whenever you want. Broadcast messaging is one of the most important features of Community Voice Mail, and this blog makes it easy to provide this information to those seeking services or providing them in the Houston area.

You can learn more about CVM's broadcast messaging capabilities by watching this brief video, created by the manager of Dallas Community Voice Mail. All CVM programs around the country automatically have the ability to send broadcast voice messages to their clients. It's an innovative, efficient want to communicate information to an often hard-to-reach population.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Wilco Supports Community Voice Mail

Wilco isn't just a great band, but they also appear to be nice people. In February the band (and its fans!) raised $10,000 for the Chicago Community Voice Mail program through the sale of concert posters and premium "Opera Box" seats. An additional $10,000 went to Inspiration Corporation, the agency that hosts the CVM service in the city. Through Wilco's "Causes" program, they occasionally generate money for great organizations in some of the cities in which they play. Thanks Wilco, and thanks to your fans as well.

Discounted Prepaid Wireless in Florida from TracFone

Last month, we learned that TracFone (a large prepaid wireless provider) had been declared eligible by the FCC to receive subsidies from the Universal Service Fund (USF) to provide their prepaid wireless service at a discount to low-income people via the USF's LifeLine program. Today, some of the details of this plan became available in the state of Florida, one of ten states in which TracFone will be eligible to offer this service with USF funds. Based on the press release from the Florida Public Service Commission, qualifying low-income people will receive access to a free mobile phone and 68 free minutes of use per month, with additional minutes available for $.20/minute in $2, $5 and $10 increments.

This is a good start. Previously, USF funds could only be applied to landline phone subsidies, or to standard wireless service with monthly/annual contracts, etc. Neither of these solutions are always of use to homeless or low-income people who lack a home into which a landline can be installed, or who lack a credit record good enough to qualify for a standard monthly plan. In a recent survey, we found out that about 21% of Community Voice Mail clients own mobile phones, and the vast majority purchase prepaid wireless minutes. TracFone may save these clients money assuming the service is comparable in quality to other offerings.

The TracFone subsidy may eventually become available in D.C., New York, Virginia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, Delaware, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. Apparently, the company must apply for Universal Service Support from each state in which it hopes to provide this service.