Thursday, December 17, 2009

Assurance Wireless: New Free LifeLine Mobile Phone

On December 9, Virgin Mobile launched Assurance Wireless, a free mobile phone program for low-income people who are eligible under the Federal LifeLine program. It's currently available in New York, N. Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, and likely coming to more states in the future. This service now competes with SafeLink Wireless, which has been offering a free prepaid mobile phone and monthly minutes through the federal LifeLine program for over a year. (Read our initial review of SafeLink here).

If you live in one of these states and are eligible for LifeLine (see below), you should definitely look into this. You get a free mobile phone, plus 200 free minutes each month for as long as you're eligible for the program. This is nearly three times the minutes offered by SafeLink in these states, and a bit closer to the number of minutes someone can rely upon for normal daily use. The service is very similar to SafeLink in that your free minutes are automatically added to your phone each month. Text messages consume $.15 per message (sent or received). You can also purchase additional Virgin Mobile service to give you access to email and the Internet (cost is dependent on how much you use).

If you are currently using SafeLink and want to switch, it appears this is possible. According to Assurance Wireless, you just need to cancel your service with SafeLink and then go through the application process with Assurance. I know that the FCC is very cautious about letting people receive more than one LifeLine benefit (in this case, more than one phone per household), so it may prove to be more complicated than this or there may be a time delay as your transfer service. If you call, make sure you get confirmation about the process to ensure that you aren't without phone service for any length of time.

A couple other things that appear better than SafeLink:
  • You get to talk to a human. To apply for Assurance Wireless, you need to call a toll-free number (1-888-898-4888) and talk with an operator who will answer your questions about the program and send you an application in the mail (unfortunately not by email or fax). It's nice to be able to get a human on the phone instead of just dealing with recorded messages. Oh, and I was told today by an Assurance operator that I do not consume my free minutes when I call their toll-free customer service line using my Assurance phone. SafeLink explicitly says that when you call customer service or tech support using your phone, you consume minutes. (I always found this pretty ridiculous).
  • If you already have a Virgin Mobile phone, you can use it as your Assurance Wireless phone. This is nice for people already using Virgin's prepaid service, and a smart move by Assurance Wireless as it will cut down on the number of free phones they need to send out to customers.
One thing I don't like as much:
  • The site says that if you run out of minutes, you can buy additional minutes at a rate of $.20/minute via the Virgin Mobile "Top Up" cards available at retail locations everywhere. Virgin Mobile minutes normally cost $.10/minute or less at the retail stores, however, so this didn't add up. During my talk with Assurance Wireless today, I was told that you have to buy Assurance Wireless minute cards, not Virgin Mobile minute cards. I can't believe that's true, and I'll post again if I get to the bottom of this.
To qualify for LifeLine and be eligible for Assurance Wireless (or SafeLink Wireless), you need to be receiving one of a number of federal assistance benefits (food stamps, public housing assistance, home energy assistance, school free lunch program, medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, as well as select state programs), or your total household income must be below 135% of the Federal poverty level. Each state has slightly different requirements, and you need to talk with Assurance about the specifics.

So, competition between carriers has generated a better offering for low-income people who want to get a mobile phone. More minutes would be even better, but for now, it's nice to know that the system sometimes works to the advantage of people living in poverty. Someday, a smart carrier will realize that there is a viable market at the "bottom of the (American) pyramid," and we'll see an even better option. And Smart Carrier, if you're reading this, contact us. We'd like to help...

(If you have any experience, good or bad, with Assurance Wireless, please considering posting in the comments!)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

New Blog: Seattle Community Voice Mail

Seattle CVM has a blog! Seattle is where Community Voice Mail was first offered, and the program is now hosted by Solid Ground. Lambert and Maureen manage the CVM program there, and we look forward to lots of information for clients and their agencies. This is the 15th CVM program to publish a blog.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Navigating the Social Service Safety Net

Mark Horvath today introduces us to Jay, a man in Cleveland who lost his job, lost his home to foreclosure, and has been homeless for the past two years. Horvath has himself experience homelessness, and he is perhaps best known for recording short video interviews with homeless people around the county. He often asks the people he's interviewing what their three wishes are, and the responses are always thoughtful, beautiful, and obvious (in a "of course, how simple!" sort of way).

Jay's three wishes are my favorite of the series. Listen to the end...

Jay from on Vimeo.

Monday, November 16, 2009

World AIDS Day - December 1

Tuesday, December 1 is World AIDS Day, an international day to reduce the stigma and raise awareness about HIV and AIDS around the globe. Working with, Community Voice Mail will be participating this year, sending messages to our clients and agencies about HIV testing resources and other information. HIV is five times more prevalent in the homeless population than in the general population, so it impacts a lot of our clients. It's important to know if you're infected, and the only way to know is to get tested.

There are lots of ways you can participate in World AIDS Day, but one great way is to take a photo of yourself showing how you're "Facing AIDS." Just download a Facing AIDS sign, write on it why you're participating, take a photo of you holding it, and submit it to the Flickr pool. will select a bunch of these photos and create a video "collage" that will be available on their site. Great campaign, and the photos already submitted are really touching and powerful. You can learn more by watching the video below, featuring Director Miguel Gomez.

Tulsa Community Voice Mail - in the News

KOTV (Tulsa, OK) has a nice news story about the Tulsa Community Voice Mail program, featuring our own Lori Morton (Tulsa CVM Manager). Watch the clip by clicking on the image, or read the transcript below.

Voicemail Service Keeps Homeless Connected

By Ashli Sims, The News On 6

TULSA, OK -- A local program is helping Tulsa's homeless connect with a better life. It's something many people take for granted, but it's offering messages of hope to hundreds.

When Christine ended up at the Day Center for the Homeless, she says she didn't just lose her home. She felt disconnected from her life.

"When you don't communicate with people - you can't communicate with people -it's like being blind and deaf at the same time. It's hard to find your way. And it's hard to get your needs met," said Christine.

Christine needed a phone - to get a job, to find a home, to get out. But she couldn't afford it, and the Day Center line wasn't always the best option.

"People don't want to call somewhere where they have to page you, where you may or may not be there. You may or may not hear your name being called," she said.

That's when she found out about community voicemail. It's a free service that gives folks a phone number with a personalized voice mail that they can check from anywhere.

"They could get a job or stay in touch with their doctors. Or put their name on a list for housing. Because you can't have those opportunities, if people can't reach you," said Lori Morton, Day Center program manager.

Morton says more than 900 people are checking their community voicemail every day, and the program's so successful, it's won a national award.

"As a result we've been able to capture over 660 successful outcomes - goals being met - as a result of having that connection," Morton said.

"Community voicemail is a blessing," Christine, a community voicemail user, said.

Christine says with community voice mail, she was out of the shelter in less than a month and into a home of her own.

"But it gives you hope, absolutely. And it gives you a way out of a place that seems like there's no way out," she said.

Organizers say the program cost about $80,000 dollars a year, and they get much of their funding from the Schusterman Foundation

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

New CVM Blogs: Arizona, Twin Cities and Vancouver (WA)

Three more CVM programs have started blogs, to provide information to clients who use Community Voice Mail, the agencies they're working with, and the community in which they all live. Here's a rundown of the new sites:
  • Arizona Community Voice Mail blog: The Arizona CVM program is hosted by Community Information & Referral in Phoenix, and the blog is maintained by Juan Mendez, the new CVM Manager there. Arizona CVM serves more than 1,500 clients each year.
  • Twin Cities Community Voice Mail blog: The Twin Cities CVM program offers voice mail services statewide, and is the largest program in the country, providing voice mail boxes and broadcast messaging to nearly 5,000 clients.
  • Vancouver (WA) Community Voice Mail blog: CVM Vancouver is hosted by the Council for the Homeless in Vancouver, Washington. CVM Vancouver serves more than 800 clients each year.
Why does CVM blog? Well, we've found that nationally, 59% of our clients have an email address, and look for information (and entertainment) on the web like everyone else. Case managers and others serving people in poverty also use the blogs to provide information to their own clients, especially those who don't have a CVM number. Finally, the material posted on CVM blogs generally mirrors the information our clients receive via broadcast voice messages, so the blog becomes a permanent repository of that information in case our clients lose the voice mail ("Now where did I write that down?").

Happy reading!

Television Show Produced by Homeless People

Last month, CNN did a story about Voices for Change, a TV show on the St. Paul (MN) Neighborhood Network that is produced and presented by people who are homeless. The story focuses on Ron Kennebrew, the producer of the show, and tells his story as a formerly homeless person. Twin Cities Community Voice Mail is involved with the show as well, with board and staff members supporting this effort.Click on the image below to watch the report.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Keep the Messages Flowing in D.C.

Street Sense is a street newspaper in Washington, D.C. that raises public awareness about homelessness and poverty in the city, and creates economic opportunities for people experiencing homelessness. Last week, they published a nice article about the D.C. Community Voice Mail (CVM) program, describing how one client used the service (and his personal will) to land a job and gain some financial independence. We love articles like this, because it shows what we know to be true; homeless people and/or those who can't afford a phone number lose out on opportunities to live a better life, and CVM is a simple, low-cost solution to this problem.

But, CVM doesn't happen by magic, and it doesn't happen without support. And this article points out the hard truth; our D.C. program is in danger of closing due to funding cuts for social services in D.C.. For want of $40,000 and an agency to host the program, hundreds of homeless and low-income people in D.C. may no longer have a phone number to put on job applications.

So, times are tough all over, and every agency providing services to people living in poverty (including the surging numbers of newly homeless) is looking for ways to maintain services in the face of reduced funding. We're not whining. We just want to find the right group of people who want to keep CVM available to the thousands of homeless and "phoneless" people in D.C.. We're not talking about millions of dollars and big infrastructure; we're only talking about $40,000 a year to pay for a part-time person in D.C. who will distribute phone numbers to the 35 existing agencies (and find new ones), send broadcast voice and email messages about about jobs and other resources to clients using the system, and innovate locally by finding new uses for CVM. It's a plug-and-play program that scales, with great support from a National Office here in Seattle and 44 other programs around the country. Clients need it. Agencies benefit from their clients having a reliable phone number (so they can reach them. Duh.). Communities benefit from homeless or at-risk people getting back on their feet and contributing again.

Can you think of another program to help homeless people that achieves so much for such a small investment? $40,000? In a city the size of D.C.?

If you'd like to talk about ways to keep CVM in D.C., and make it an even stronger resource for the homeless and the people serving them, contact us.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Tulsa CVM Video (using Flip Video camera)

Tulsa Community Voice Mail just published a nice video on their blog, featuring clients from that city talking about how having a CVM voice mail number has helped them. I can talk all day about how this simple service makes a difference to people who can't afford a reliable phone number, but a few words from our clients trumps everything. Nothing like hearing it from the people it's actually benefiting. (Direct link to the video on YouTube here.)

Lori, the Tulsa CVM Manager, recorded the clients comments using a Flip Video camera that we purchased at a discount via Flip Video Spotlight, the company's charitable giving program. If the nonprofit you care about hasn't pursued video yet, getting a camera via this program is a great way to start. When we applied, we were given an option to get two 60-minute cameras for the price of one, and now it appears they're offing a 120-minute version. The cameras are simple to operate (you can only record/play, and zoom in/out; no other buttons), the lens is great, and it comes with a built-in USB connector so you can plug it right into your computer. The software, which resides on the camera, enables minor editing and direct posting to YouTube, etc. Great stuff, particularly for interviews and other close-in recording.

And if you think Lori is some sort of video expert with fancy equipment, think again. These interviews were created by placing the camera on a filing cabinet and pointing it at the clients, who were sitting in her office. Lori did the editing herself, and I believe this was her first experience with video. I think the fact that the camera is very small (like an iPod) and not intimidating brings out better interviews. Get one!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Top 10 List: Addressing Homelessness

Joel John Roberts, the CEO of PATH Partners in Los Angeles just published his top ten list of how the approach to addressing homelessness has changed in the five years that he's been blogging. It's a good list (not in any priority):
  • Permanent Supportive Housing (some also call this “Housing First”) has become the paramount solution to homelessness. But communities today are struggling with how to fund on an annual basis the support services needed for this housing.
  • Chronic homelessness has become a priority target population. But in the past couple of years, episodic homelessness (the newly homeless) has dramatically increased, resulting in local communities changing priorities.
  • More and more families have become homeless during a time when families were not considered part of the standard definition of chronic homelessness.
  • Hundreds and hundreds of cities across the country adopted “Ten Year Plans To End Homelessness.” But after five years of adoption—the halfway point for many cities—no one is confidently predicting that chronic homelessness will end by 2014.
  • Tent cities are becoming the new “shelters” of today. Very few local neighborhoods are allowing traditional homeless shelters to be built. So impromptu homeless “tent cities” are being set up instead.
  • Due to the declining economy, less and less resources are available to sustain an existing homeless care system and to invest in permanent affordable housing.
  • Homeless prevention trumps traditional homeless services. Pro-active prevention activities are being funded rather than reactive homeless services.
  • Social media is actually becoming as effective as traditional media. Facebook, blogs, and Twitter are certainly all the buzz. Who wants to buy stock in local newspapers? Social media is being used to educate and mobilize the community.
  • Government, alone, cannot resolve homelessness. It will take both a public and private partnership to end homelessness. That is why local governments are partnering with the business community, faith groups, and private service agencies.
  • Finally, I personally feel that community engagement is becoming an important piece to the solution of homelessness. In order to increase resources and overcome NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard), communities are going to have to unite together to overcome homelessness.
I might humbly add that homeless people with a Community Voice Mail number now have access to a constant flow of information (via broadcast voice messaging) sent to them from a local person who is in touch with a wide variety of community resources and events. And social service agencies trying to help end homelessness have a simple, effective tool to reach their "phoneless" clients when they need to tell them about a job or housing opportunity.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Community Voice Mail in the News

KOMO News in Seattle just broadcast a great piece (see below) about the Washington Telephone Assistance Program, which uses federal Universal Service Fund dollars to provide discounted phone service to people receiving various forms of public assistance. Bill, who is featured in the program, is also a really nice guy and a big advocate of Community Voice Mail. Jenn Brandon, the executive director of the Community Voice Mail National Office, is also interviewed.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

New CVM Blog: Cleveland

Cleveland Community Voice Mail, which is hosted by 211/First Call For Help, has just launched a blog. This is the 11th blog created by local CVM programs, and a sign that we're trying to reach our clients and their agencies using all appropriate means. Nearly 60% of our clients tell us they have email addresses, and virtually all of our 2,000 agencies using most of the communication technologies you can name. We have a lot of opportunity for reaching more people in multiple ways.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Stories from Clients (NEED Magazine)

NEED Magazine just published a nice piece featuring the "stories" of a few Seattle Community Voice Mail clients, with accompanying photos. If you watched the video we recently published with the voices of CVM clients talking about the best voice message they've ever received, you'll recognize some of the photos, and you can now learn more about their experiences. Of course, they all use Community Voice Mail, and it's been instrumental in improving their situation, but the bigger story is about their sheer determination to overcome the huge obstacles before them. Inspiring stuff.

Monday, August 17, 2009

New CVM Blog: Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Community Voice Mail, which is hosted by Travelers Aid of Pittsburgh, has just launched a blog to keep CVM clients, agencies and others in the area informed about jobs, events and other local resources. The Pittsburgh program launched earlier this year, and is already serving hundreds of clients. This is the 10th CVM blog!

Friday, August 14, 2009

"Poverty in Chicago" Documentary

There's a good (and of course, achingly sad) documentary now online about the homeless and others living in poverty in Chicago. It's called "Poverty in Chicago", and it was written and directed by Brian Schodorf. You can watch it below, and read more about it on the web site for the film. (Thanks to the NAEH blog for pointing me to this).

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Your Best Voice Mail Message Ever

We send a lot of voice messages to our clients, about jobs, events, health information, local resources, etc. We frequently ask them for information about how they use their Community Voice Mail box, or how else we can help. Recently, we asked our clients in Houston a different kind of question:

"What's the best voice mail message you've ever received?"

Within a week, we received more than 100 amazing and moving messages, and you can listen to a selection of them below. Jobs, family, love, connection...there's a lot of life that gets squeezed through the phone lines. We hope you find this as inspiring as we do. Enjoy!

Our profound thanks to the CVM clients in Houston who left us messages, and to the Seattle CVM clients who agreed to be photographed. Thanks also to volunteer photographer Rajiv Kapoor, who along with Daniel from the CVM National Office spent a lot of time with our clients to capture these images.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009 and Community Voice Mail just posted a really nice piece on their blog about our national efforts to reach 20,000 Community Voice Mail clients and 1,800 social service agencies last month with information about HIV testing. This is a follow-up to our previous post about this outreach effort.

The post includes a voice response we received from one of our clients, who heard the message, pressed the "4" key on her phone, and recorded a comment. We love having this level of communication with the people who use our service, and I think we're only beginning to tap into the power of this network. It seems strange to say in these Internet-fueled days, but there is great power in hearing a human voice, and maintaining that rich connection to another human being. This is particularly true for people who are experiencing homelessness or other problems that make it difficult to stay connected to others.

It's been great working with on this, and we look forward to working with more partners to distribute information to our clients and the agencies that serve them. What other information should we send to help our clients build better lives? Leave us a note in the comments if you feel so inclined...

We definitely weren't the only ones working to increase awareness about National HIV Testing Day. Hundreds of organizations and countless individuals organized around this, and we're glad to have been included. Oh, and here's one other notable participant...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Why Are People Homeless?

The National Alliance to End Homeless has a new blog, and they just posted a mercifully brief answer to the question: "Why Are People Homeless?" The root causes of homelessness are very complex, and there are often interconnected issues that cause someone to lose their place to live, but this article gives a good high-level summary for four populations:
  • Veterans: Emotional or mental distress from military service can manifest in damaging behavior (drugs, alcohol, etc.) that leads to loss of permanent housing.
  • Families: An unforeseen costly event (raise in rent, medical emergency, etc.) creates a financial hurdle that can push a family into homelessness.
  • Youth: Homelessness often happens as a result of a family disruption (divorce, abuse, etc.). Those who leave foster care when they turn 18 or get out of the juvenile justice system find themselves without a social safety net.
  • The "Chronically Homeless": Most often the result of a physical or psychological disability, which makes it hard to secure permanent housing.
There is voluminous data and analysis about this question, available on the NAEH site and elsewhere, but these are reasonable nuggets to share the next time you're on an elevator and the subject comes up. If everyone in America knew even this about the homeless, I believe things would change.

Thursday, July 2, 2009 Road Trip is hitting the road this summer, visiting 24 cities in 49 days to record (on video) the stories of people without homes. You can read more about this epic road trip here, including a list of cities and dates. If you're so inclined, please consider supporting this effort with a donation or other assistance. I just did. records the voices and stories of "homeless" people, in their own words and without a lot of editing or editorializing. I learn a lot every time I watch one of these videos, and I can't wait to see what they capture this summer.

Here's a recent interview from the site:

Richard from on Vimeo.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Can You Wax Poetic?

It used to be that when you loved someone (or something), you wrote them a poem. Now, if you love what we do here at Community Voice Mail, you can write a poem about us and help us raise $10,000!

The CTK Foundation Philanthropic Fund is having a nationwide contest asking people to write a 4-8 line poem describing the "heart and soul" of their nonprofit mission. CTK will select the best poem from among all the entries it receives, and the winning organization will receive $10,000 and have their poem set to music and recorded by the Grammy Award-winning band Los Lonely Boys.

Any nonprofit can submit a poem, and CVM is looking for your help. We're good with words, but we're betting that among you (our clients, our agencies, our CVM Managers, our donors, our friends) there are some great poets who can write beautifully about Community Voice Mail. Here's the deal:

Anyone can participate. Simply write your best 4-8 line poem about Community Voice Mail, and send it to us at by Monday, July 13. You must include your name, phone number (of course), city and state. We hope we get a lot of poems by our clients!

The staff of the Community Voice Mail National Office will read every submission and pick our favorite to submit as CVM's official entry in the contest. If Community Voice Mail's poem is selected by the CTK Foundation, CVM will receive the $10,000 grant. If the winning poem is submitting by a CVM client, staff, participating agency or volunteer of a local Community Voice Mail program, CVM will split the $10,000 between our office and the nonprofit agency hosting the program in that community. Your poem can help a lot of people get a free voice mail box, and a new connection to information, resources and hope.

If you need any inspiration, learn more about Community Voice Mail at, or on this blog. Maybe watch a fun animated film about us. Follow our tweets, see us on Facebook, or visit us in Second Life. Read who we helped last year. Or maybe just go sit under a tree and contemplate the beautifulness that is Community Voice Mail. (Or sit under a tree and think how hard it would be if you were homeless and didn't have a reliable phone number). Get your friends involved. Be deep, be zany, rhyme, don't rhyme. Poety, like Community Voice Mail, is versatile!

Remember, you have to submit your poem to by July 13 to be considered as our entry for the CTK contest. Thanks in advance for sending us your words!

Friday, June 26, 2009

It's Hot In Houston!

6/29 Update: The always great End Homelessness on has a post about heat and homelessness. Also, the heat advisory is still on for Houston today.

It was hot in Houston this week. Hot. As in 102 degrees hot on Thursday, with a heat index of 108 or so. It was hotter in Baghdad yesterday (113 degrees), but not by that much. Most people in Houston are probably finding some relief from the heat in air-conditioned offices, apartments and homes. But what about people who don't have a place to live? High temperatures like this aren't just uncomfortable when you're homeless; they can be deadly. Your body can lose up to a gallon of water each hour through perspiration in such temperatures. There is danger from heat exhaustion, stroke and other health issues resulting from dehydration.

The City has issued a heat advisory through Saturday night, and more than 1,800 CVM clients learned what they can do to stay safe from a series of messages sent from the Houston Community Voice Mail manager. On Thursday, he sent a broadcast voice message that reached everyone, a broadcast email message that reached 568 CVM clients, and posted a message on the Houston CVM blog that reached others in the area. As with messages sent to Houston CVM clients before Hurricane Ike in 2008, it's likely that these simple messages saved a life, or at least prevented someone from getting seriously ill.

Many of our clients are homeless, or may otherwise find it hard to get accurate information about important things in a timely manner. We used to think that providing our clients with a phone number made up most of the value of our service. Increasingly, it's the ability to send information to our clients, and to get responses from them, that is making all the difference. And this is happening all over the country, in 45 CVM cities.

Bruce and Donna has a new video posted, featuring a couple living in Nickelsville in Seattle (my city). Nickelsville is a living community created by and for homeless people, named after the mayor of Seattle (Greg Nickels). The encampment is forced to move around a lot, but while it's in one place, it's a remarkably well-organized community. People have to sign agreements to live there. There are strict rules against things like drugs, alcohol and weapons. Community meetings are mandatory. There is sanitation, security, and most of the things that other communities have. While we need make Nickelsville and similar homeless communities unnecessary by actually housing people, I find the resolve of the people living in this community quite inspiring. Sometimes, you just have to make what you need. (And remind me to check to see if they have a phone available for residents to use).

Bruce and Donna from on Vimeo. has more video about Nickelsville that describes in detail how it is organized. (My thanks to Scot at Community Voice Mail Houston for letting me know about this).

Monday, June 22, 2009

"Hi, I'm Homeless" Animation

We've updated our short animation about Community Voice Mail, and it's worth watching. Maybe it's because I was raised on Bugs Bunny, but I find this animation to be one of the most effective ways to tell people about what we do. We hope you like it!

I wish all of our clients had such an easy time getting a job and finding housing, but again, this is just a cartoon. In real life, a Community Voice Mail number is just a great and simple tool to help the client do what he or she is trying to accomplish (employment, housing, health care, connection).

Friday, June 12, 2009

National HIV Testing Day: CVM partners with to get the word out

June 27th is National HIV Testing Day. This week, Community Voice Mail launched a campaign with to inform our clients around the country about free or low-cost HIV testing resources in local communities. Every nine and half minutes, someone in the United States becomes infected with HIV, and estimates that 1 out of 5 people that have HIV don't know they're infected. HIV is five times more prevalent in the homeless population than in the non-homeless population. It's important to know if you're infected, and the only way to know is to get tested.

Using our national communication network, here's what we're doing to inform our clients and agencies (and lots of others) about local HIV testing resources:
  • Sending broadcast voice messages to 20,000 clients. Click here to listen to the message sent by our Aiken County (SC) CVM Manager. CVM Managers in all our cities are sending similar messages
  • Sending broadcast email messages to the 3,600 clients who have given us their email addresses
  • Sending broadcast voice and/or email messages to our contacts at 1,800+ social service agencies in 45 cities, encouraging them to tell all their clients about HIV Testing Day
  • Blogging, "tweeting" (Twitter) and posting messages on facebook. Several sites are also adding badges and widgets from to their web properties
  • In May, we presented with at a "mixed reality" panel at NetSquared's N2Y4 Conference in San Jose and in Second Life. (In the coming weeks, look for more about HIV Testing Day in CVM's Second Life presence - SLurl)
It's great to be able to communicate with so many people who are often hard to reach, and who can benefit greatly from this kind of information. The partnership with has been great, and we look forward to working with them again on other information campaigns. Most importantly, we hope that a lot of people who might not otherwise think about it call the hotline, find a testing location, and get tested.

Call 1-800-232-4636 (CDC-INFO), or go to to find an HIV testing site near you.

Planning to Tweet about this post? Please use the hashtag for HIV Testing Day (#NHTD09) and the Twitter handle for the CVM National Office (@cvmnational)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Two New CVM Blogs (New Mexico and D.C.)

Two more Community Voice Mail programs have recently launched blogs:
There are now 11 CVM blogs around the country, including this one. Welcome New Mexico and D.C.!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Great Film Shot Entirely Using a Cell Phone

The current Star Trek film (which I want to see) reportedly cost $150 million to make. But what can you do with a mobile phone camera and $57 dollars? Make a beautiful 3.5 minute film about homelessness. "Mankind Is No Island" is a short film by Jason van Genderen that uses street signs and images of homeless people in Sydney and New York City to tell the story. In 2008, the film won two awards at Tropfest New York, the USA version of the world's largest short film festival. Definitely worth watching. And another way mobile phones can be powerful tools to combat homelessness.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Map Showing Homeless Count Data

Each year, cities all over the U.S. conduct a one-day count of homeless people, part of a federal requirement for cities receiving Continuum of Care funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The last count was in January of this year.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness has created a nice Google map showing reports of homeless counts in a large number of cities, based mostly on reports in newspapers and other media sources in these local areas. On the map, red markers indicate media reports of increases in the number of homeless people, with green indicating decreases and yellow a mix of the two (increases in some sub populations and decreases in others).

Visually, red is "winning" on the national map, which may indicate that more cities are reporting increases in the homeless count vs. last year. There is undoubtedly other data consolidations elsewhere, but this is a nice visual representation.

Friday, May 8, 2009

How to File Complaints about Phone Companies

Update: A reader let me know that the two USAC links below had changed. I've updated the links below.

A few people have posted comments complaining about the service they're getting from SafeLink Wireless, the first mobile phone carrier to offer a free phone and monthly minutes to low-income people who qualify for the Federal LifeLine program. Community Voice Mail is in no way connected to SafeLink Wireless or TracFone (its parent company), but we did find out how you can submit complaints about SafeLink or any other telecommunications company if you're not happy with their service.

I sent an email to the nonprofit that administers the various telecommunications programs that receive Universal Service Funds (LifeLine is one of these programs). The nonprofit is called the Universal Service Administrative Company, or USAC (see I emailed USAC to find out where consumers could submit complaints about SafeLink or any other phone company, and on May 6, 2009, I received an email from the director of the Low-Income program at USAC, which said:

"The best advice for consumers who have complaints about their telephone company is to contact their state public utilities commission. USAC maintains a list of contact information for each PUC at"

"Consumers can also file a complaint with the FCC at 1-888-CALL-FCC or electronically at"

If you're having a problem that a phone company is not resolving to your satisfaction, these look like two good avenues to try to get help. And it does matter if you call; the more complaints they get, the greater the likelihood that the company will address these concerns. And, if you're having problems, it's possible that other people are as well.

I'm interested to learn what your experiences are if you decide to contact your state public utilities commission or the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). If you call or submit a complaint online, please consider posting a comment about your experience. Good luck!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

CVM Helps Inmates and Public Defenders Connect

In the movies, it's usually pretty easy for defense attorneys to visit their clients in jail, and they always have something hugely critical to tell them. In reality, it takes a lot of time and effort on the part of the attorney, the staff at the jail, and even the in-custody client to meet. And frequently, the information the attorney needs to provide to her client is routine information about court schedules and future meetings. This is a classic case of moving people to information instead of making it easy to move information to people, with everyone (including the jail system) spending unnecessary time and money as a result.

Through an initiative launched this month, public defenders in King County (WA) will now be able to communicate via voice mail with their in-custody clients. This project is being implemented by Community Voice Mail National Office (CVM), Seattle CVM (hosted by Solid Ground), the Northwest Defenders Association (NDA) and the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD).

NDA attorneys and paralegals are assigning private CVM voice mail boxes to their in-custody clients. Attorneys and paralegals leave private messages for clients on the voice mail which the clients check regularly from the phone in the jail. They simply type in a speed dial code, their voice mail box extension and a unique password to access the messages.

The communication is one-way only – providing the attorneys with a quick, efficient way to get short messages to their clients about upcoming hearings and meetings thus saving them time and money usually expended by trips to the jail. The service is a great supplement to in-person visits with clients.

While in-custody clients are prevented from using their CVM box for any purpose other than to receive messages from their attorney (via several security measures in place to ensure the system is used solely for its intended purpose), those who lack a reliable phone with private messaging can get access to a fully functioning CVM number upon their release from jail from the NDA.

The first voice mail box was distributed on April 6, 2009 and as of April 27, 28 boxes are currently in use. CVM National and the King County DAJD have plans to make this service available to other local defender organizations once the pilot phase is completed.

CVM Partnering with the CDC on H1N1 Flu Virus Awareness

As we did with the peanut-containing product recall in February, Community Voice Mail is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to provide accurate information to our clients about the outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus (formerly known as "swine flu virus"). Nearly 60% of Community Voice Mail clients around the country are homeless or at-risk of homelessness, and good health-related information is sometimes hard to come by. If you don't have a place to live, it's hard to access information, so we send it to our clients directly.

Using text approved by the CDC, we're sending broadcast voice messages to more than 15,000 clients, and email messages to 2,500 clients who have provided us with their addresses. We've also sent email and voice messages to our contacts at the 2,000 social service agencies that provide CVM in 45 cities around the country. As information changes and we're updated by the CDC, we'll send new messages through our network. You can listen to one of the broadcast voice messages we sent here.

When we sent the peanut-recall message in February, we received hundreds of voice responses from clients saying they wanted more health-related messages sent to them. We plan to continue our collaboration with the CDC and other great sources of health information.

Here are a couple authoritative resources about the H1N1 flu virus outbreak:

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Invisible Man

In an effort to make a homeless person "visible" to people passing him on the sidewalk, filmmakers in Düsseldorf, Germany projected video of a street scene on a homeless man, making him appear transparent. Brilliant stuff.

(Film created by Euro RSCG Duesseldorf. Appreciation to TimG for pointing us to it)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

CVM Success in Summit County, Ohio

The Akron Beacon Journal has a nice article about Summit County (Ohio) Community Voice Mail, which launched last year and is doing really well. The article features Tara Strickland (pictured here), a CVM Summit client who successfully used her voice mail number to find a job, and now uses it to stay connected to people and resources that are helping her. One section from the article exemplifies the impact that a simple phone number can have:

''It has helped me out so much,'' Strickland said. ''It helps me with doctor's appointments, to keep up with my son in school in case the school needs to get in touch with me, to pass on information from the agency and for work.

''I've been called into work early several times.''

Strickland said voice mail also helped her find new housing.

''I needed a way for potential landlords to get ahold of me,'' she said. ''It helped me find an apartment. I just moved.''

For more about Community Voice Mail Summit, take a look at their web site, and a blog that is used to keep clients and social service agencies in Summit County informed about useful resources.

(Photo: Mike Cardew/Akron Beacon Journal)

Monday, April 6, 2009

A Panhandler Speaks

Quick...without thinking, what image comes into your head when you think of "homeless people"? Is it the guy who was injured (without insurance), lost his job and then his home, and ended up on the streets? Or perhaps the Veteran who returned from Iraq with PTSD and couldn't easily rejoin society? Or maybe the mother of two who lost her rental house because the owner was foreclosed upon?

There are a lot of people who end up homeless for these reasons, but it's more likely that your first thought was about the homeless people you probably encounter every day: panhandlers. The people on the street or at the off-ramp, holding a sign and asking for money. There have been a lot of articles about panhandlers (here's one), usually focusing on the few(?) who actually make money doing it, or who otherwise lie about their need or what they plan to do with the money you give them. In the video below (from, you'll see another side of the story:

Tony from invisible people on Vimeo.

Are some panhandlers less "together" than the person in this video? Do some take your money and feed a drug or alcohol addiction? Absolutely. But for anyone who thinks that standing at the off-ramp with a sign begging for money is a desirable lifestyle, or that everyone at the off-ramp is simply using the money to buy drugs or alcohol, take a look at this video. Most people have the same basic desires: a place to live, a job, and something that brings meaning to their life. Sometimes, people do what they have to do to survive.

Friday, March 27, 2009

More Than One Way Down's End Homelessness blog has a sobering and revealing story about what it's like to have a serious injury and not have health insurance or any safety net to catch you. It's worth reading this very sad story as just one example of how cascading effects can send someone into the spiral of poverty, homelessness and everything that comes from this.

Recently, we were looking at the data we collect from our own clients and the social service agencies that are working with them. When clients sign up for a Community Voice Mail number, we ask them which of the following general categories they fit in (check all that apply):

At Risk of Homelessness
Limited English Skills
Victim of Domestic Violence
Foster Care Participant
Parolee/Prisoner Re-entry Program
In-housing – phone disconnected

In 2008, about 60% of our 40,000 clients self-identified as being "Homeless" or "At Risk of Homelessness." Of this 60%,
  • 44% selected only Homeless or At Risk of Homelessness and no other categories. In other words, 44% felt that this single category best described their situation, or was the only characteristic they were willing to provide.
  • 45% selected one category in addition to the Homeless/At-Risk grouping, with the most prominent being Unemployed (nearly 90% of those who selected a second category included Unemployed as the other).
  • 9% selected two categories in addition to the Homeless/At-Risk grouping, with the most prominent additions being Unemployed+Victim of Domestic Violence or Unemployed+Parole/Prisoner Re-entry Program
  • 1% selected three additional categories, and a small number selected four or more
What this data suggest is that our clients don't usually arrive at a social service agency just seeking help with a single problem. It's not only that they don't have a place to live, but they're also unemployed, seeking safety from violence, just out of prison and/or facing a host of other issues.

This may be obvious, and the data about the causes of homelessness usually indicate this, but it's definitely a reminder that life is a fragile lattice. A break anywhere can lead to weakness in other areas, which can eventually break as well. For our clients, it appears that homelessness is usually combined with unemployment, with the loss of a job usually preceding the loss of a place to live. Throw in domestic violence, limited ability to speak English, or even having your home phone disconnected, and imagine the impact on the totality of your life. Something to consider in our economy as more people begin to experience that first break to their own lattice, whether it's the loss of a job, foreclosure on a house, or an illness without health insurance.

The person in the story mentioned above may have ended up living in a tent, but before that he was in a hospital without health insurance. And he was on the roof in the first place because he didn't have a job.

Friday, March 13, 2009

CVM and Google Voice

Yesterday, Google relaunched their GrandCentral voice product as Google Voice. It's a great piece of technology, allowing you to have all calls made to your central (Google) number flow to whatever phone you happen to be using at the time (work, home, mobile) . The system gives you control over who reaches you when & where, and has a great feature set that includes text transcription of your voice mail, outbound (free) dialing to anywhere in the U.S., and a lot of other things. I think it's a revolutionary product that will change the way people use their phones and manage their digital presence. Google Voice is free, and will soon be open to the general public to use.

Google's product, of course, also includes voice mail, and that has lead one blogger to question whether Community Voice Mail has been rendered obsolete by this announcement. The post contains some out-of-date information about us, but the question is valid: does Google Voice as a free voice mail service mean that CVM is no longer valuable?

Of course, we believe the answer is "no." Based on our experience these past 15 years, we know that giving an individual a number to put on a resume is important, but that's not where the value is. The value is in connecting people to information and resources that can actually help them. This is where our focus is. Our system has the capacity to send broadcast voice messages to each of our clients, and our program managers in each city use this to send locally-relevant information about jobs, housing, health care, emergencies and other resources of specific interest to our clients. Our clients don't have to wait for people to call them; *we* call them, and give them access to hugely important information that is otherwise difficult for them to get. Our clients can also respond to our messages without having to make another call, and we use this to gather data and feedback from the people using our system. Our clients love all this, and so do the social service agencies that distribute our numbers. CVM offers a communication network to a highly disconnected population. We don't just offer a phone number.

CVM is also much more than technogy. Right now, there is someone (a human!) in every CVM city pending a good part of his or her day working with local social service agencies to give boxes to clients who need them, distributing information via voice and email messaging, and finding new ways to use this simple tool. We know that it takes work (and yes, money) to maintain this program; without a local person working directly with agencies and clients to drive usage and adoption, free voice mail boxes aren't used by our clients (or at least, not used to 1/10 of their potential). It is the relationships that our managers have with their local agencies, their position in the community as a source of trusted/valuable information (broadcast messaging), and their focus on driving this service that adds the value.

Believe it or not, there are several other things that we've built into our system that Google Voice lacks (for example, usage reporting and outcomes tracking, so we know if anyone is actually using the system and achieving their goals!), and these are features of specific value to our clients. While we've talked extensively with Google about this, and they have expressed an interest in creating a separate system for social service agencies, our experience with other "free voice mail" companies is that they aren't fully committed to developing the services that have the greatest value for the kind of people who use CVM. It is simply not part of their core business to focus on the needs of people living in poverty, and it never will be. And something that is not core to what a for-profit company does is always at risk of being taken away or changed.

It's pretty clear that the retail Google service is geared towards people who have a phone, have a PC, and have the knowledge and wherewithal to sign themselves up for a new service. Unfortunately, I don't believe that describes most homeless people seeking help from social service agencies. We definitely have tech-savvy clients, and people living in poverty are hugely resourceful and smart, but to me, it's too much to expect most of them to get over these hurdles. Or rather, there's a better way.

Again, Google Voice is amazing technology, and I hope that Google does come out with a version of it that is more attuned to the needs of the homeless and the agencies that serve them. Until then, and until it is proven to deliver real value to the population we serve, CVM will keep chugging along, starting up in new cities, finding new value, and sending our clients local information about jobs, housing and other things they care about beyond just having a phone number.

(This post is similar to the comments I posted on the Non-profit tech blog, which haven't been published yet).

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Pinellas (Florida) CVM blog launches

Another Community Voice Mail blog has launched! Pinellas CVM provided more than 1,000 clients in Pinellas County (Florida) with free voice mail last year, and will use the blog to post weekly announcements regarding special campaigns, projects, events and other important resources. If you're a CVM client in Pinellas, work for an agency that distributes CVM number, or just want to hear about information of value to low-income and homeless people in Pinellas, please visit the blog.

Pinellas CVM is proudly sponsored by 2-1-1 Tampa Bay Cares.

Friday, February 13, 2009

CVM Partners with the CDC to Tell 10,000 About the Peanut Product Recall

This past week, we partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to distribute information about the peanut-containing product recall to our clients. Thus far, we've directly reached more than 10,000 homeless or low-income people in 24 cities who don't have a reliable phone, but who do have a Community Voice Mail number. We've also provided this information to over 400 social service agencies who provide CVM voice mail boxes to their clients.

How did we do this? We used our technology and our (human) network. Using our voice mail system, we delivered a broadcast voice message written by the CDC to the voice mail boxes of 10,000 of our clients. We also sent the same information in text form to more than 1,000 CVM clients who have provided us with their email addresses. Our CVM Managers contacted the 400 social service agencies by email and through broadcast voice messaging (every case manager in our network gets a voice mail box). We posted the messages on all the CVM blogs as well. It was easy. (Click here to listen to the broadcast voice message our CVM Manager in Tulsa, Oklahoma sent to her 450 active clients.)

People who don't have a phone, a stable place to live or a stable life don't always hear about important information that is assumed to be ubiquitous. As our Houston CVM manager (Scot) learned last year, many people living on the streets there didn't even know that Hurricane Ike was approaching, and his broadcast voice message about seeking shelter probably saved lives. We hope that these messages about the peanut product recall help our clients (and their friends/loved ones) stay safe. Many have already told us by return voice message that they hadn't heard about the recall, and would check their food against the CDC list.

In the future, we hope do more communication work with CDC, the FDA and other partners to disseminate important information to a population that is very difficult to reach. If you have information of value to lower-income and homeless people that you'd like to get out, email or call (206-441-7872) us.

Valentine's Day at the Tulsa CVM Agency

Here's a nice article about how people at the Tulsa Day Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma celebrated Valentine's Day this year. The Day Center is the host of the Tulsa Community Voice Mail program. There's also a video link in the article that gives you a better sense of the events of the day.

People who are experiencing homelessness and other difficulties don't just need a job and a place to live.

(Photo: Mike Simons /Tulsa World)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Peanut Butter Recall: Great Use of Information Distribution by the Federal Government

Three federal agencies have collaborated to create a great set of resources for getting the word out about the peanut butter/peanut-containing product recall, using just about every social networking tool in the toolkit. If you're an online kind of person and seeking information about this issue, there aren't many ways to get information that they haven't thought of.

The resources are listed on the site created by the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They've made available blogs, e-cards, podcasts, video, web sites and widgets. You can receive info via Twitter, RSS, and email, through your own social networks (MySpace, etc.) and even visit a Second Life site or get a lot of this data on your mobile phone. It's a pretty comprehensive list, and a good example of "meeting people where they're at" instead of relying on people to root around for information on their own.

Oh, and there's also a 24-hour toll-free English/Spanish hotline (1-800-232-4636, TTY: (888) 232-6348) where you can talk to a real human and find out about specific products on the recall list. Community Voice Mail is partnering with the CDC to send broadcast voice and email messages about the recall to tens of thousands of our clients around the country, as well as to the agencies they're working with. Lower-income people often don't have access to information like this. Perfect use for Community Voice Mail.

Kudos to these federal agencies for these efforts!

Monday, January 26, 2009

SafeLink Wireless: When "Free" Isn't A Great Deal

Update: SafeLink now has a competitor, and they're offering a better deal. See our post about Assurance Wireless.

Running the numbers on the SafeLink Wireless offer for qualifying low-income people, it turns out that this program is a truly good deal if you only use the free minutes and don't buy any additional minutes through the SafeLink (TracFone) retail channel. If you plan to talk beyond the minutes offered for free, and you don't include cost of the inexpensive phones you get through this program, you can find cheaper service elsewhere. Here's the analysis:

In most states where SafeLink is offered, you get a free phone and 68 minutes of free talk time a month (80 in Massachusetts). So far so good. Free is great. If you only use these free 68 minutes a month, there is no cheaper program (unless someone knows of a company that pays you to use a mobile?).

If, however, you plan to talk even one more minute beyond these 68, the resulting per-minute cost is higher than you pay with other providers. SafeLink Wireless is part of TracFone, and from the SafeLink web site, when you purchase additional minutes beyond the free ones, you buy a TracFone card. The cheapest TracFone card right buys 60 minutes for $20, or $.33/minute.
  • 68 free minutes + 60 paid minutes = 128 minutes
  • Total Cost paid (additional minutes) = $20
  • 128 minutes / $20 = ~$.16/minute
$.16/minute isn't exactly the lowest price in the prepaid mobile world. Virgin Mobile's lowest-cost minute card gets you 200 minutes for $20 ($.10/minute), and if you buy in higher denominations, you get an even cheaper per-minute rate. Net10, which is another TracFone-owned company, charges a flat rate of $.10/minute for all their card denominations. So, on a per-minute basis, the SafeLink Wireless deal is not the best for lower-income people who plan to use more than the free minutes provided.

There are two main caveats to this. First, SafeLink provides a free phone along with the minutes. I made a call to SafeLink last week, and was told that the phones available through this program are the Motorola W175 and C139 models. Both phones were available on the TracFone web site last week for $9.99. So, while a free phone is great, it's only a savings of $10 or so. This gets eaten up pretty quickly by the $.16/minute rate. Second (and more importantly), the additional (TracFone) minutes you add to the SafeLink phone don't expire for 90 days, vs. 30 days for Net10 minutes. In other words, you get to keep you minutes for 60 days longer, which is a good thing for people who don't always have funds to actively replenish their phones.

There are other reasons why the SafeLink Wireless program may not work for many low-income people. The biggest is the requirement that you have a home mailing address, and only one person at that address can receive the subsidy. If you're living in a shelter, a group home, your car, or on the streets, you can't take advantage of this even if you otherwise qualify. Sounds like the FCC made SafeLink adopt the policies of the LifeLine program, which was designed with landlines in mind. Hopefully, that will change.

Community Voice Mail clients and others who are thinking about this program should think hard about how many minutes they plan to use each month. More than 68? Look at the alternatives.

(I've been trying to talk with someone at SafeLink Wireless and TracFone for months, but am finding their web site and customer service processes almost impenetrable. If anyone from TracFone would like to refute this analysis, I'm all ears!).

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

SafeLink Wireless: Available in Georgia

Update: SafeLink now has a competitor, and they're offering a better deal. See our post about Assurance Wireless.

SafeLink Wireless is now available to people who qualify for the federal Lifeline program in Georgia. As I've mentioned before, this is a free mobile phone and 68 free minutes/month for lower-income people who qualify. If you live in Georgia, read the FAQ for specific eligibility requirements and decide if this is a program for you.

(In a few days, I'll post an analysis about whether this is actually a good deal for CVM clients and other low-income people. Initial analysis indicates it's only a good financial deal if you never use more than the free minutes provided in the program. If you buy any more minutes, the cost/minute is more expensive than other carriers).

Monday, January 5, 2009

New CVM Blogs: Tulsa and Summit County (OH)

I'm pleased to announce two new Community Voice Mail blogs:
Both have great information about local resources and events of interest to CVM clients, social service agencies, and anyone in crisis or transition seeking to improve their lives.