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.
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.