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..

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