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.