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.