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).