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...