We often forget the importance of having a phone when it comes to hearing back from future employers, healthcare providers or apartment managers. Fortunately in 1991, an extraordinary community service program known as Community Voice Mail (CVM) arose. CVM enabled those with no home or phone to set up personal voice mail boxes to prevent missing the call of opportunity.
Opportunity for everyone
Originating at Seattle Worker Center – then a branch of the Fremont Public Association, Solid Ground’s predecessor – CVM expanded into a nationwide entity spreading its impact throughout the United States, as well as Canada.
For thousands of homeless and low-income people across America, CVM offered a simple yet powerful solution to some very complex problems. Personal voice mail boxes were available for use, with a 10-digit number that could be accessed by any phone or pay phone. Not only did this create a connection, it also reduced the stigma around homelessness or temporary living arrangements.
Eileen Bidwell, who was one of the first housing case managers to connect those without a phone to voice mail, says, “It was very easy to connect my participants with voice mail and for them to retrieve messages from any phone. Instantly, they had a reliable phone number to give to prospective employers, health care providers, human services agencies, school and child care providers, family and friends. Best of all, because each individual had their own phone number and recorded their own greeting, nobody knew that the people they were calling were homeless.”
The importance of a call
Community Voice Mail provided more than just jobs but also acted as “a valuable tool to help [people] connect with others. This simple mechanism transformed the lives of so many who might have otherwise been isolated and unable to communicate with the outside world,” says Eileen.
Maureen Jones, former CVM Program Assistant, served in a support role assisting many different managers. She also ran the computer system that was connected to the voice mail box, which enabled her to have many interactions with actual users and saw firsthand just how great an impact CVM made in people’s lives.
Homelessness occurs for a variety of reasons. Maureen says oftentimes we forget people “just need a little help sometimes, kind of an unassuming thing. … You couldn’t give them a house or this or that, but you could give them a little connection. That was endearing.”
More than leaving a message
In 2007, Lambert Rochfort came aboard as Program Manager. He played a critical role in examining the needs of CVM clients to modify the services to best help users. And with changing times in technology – as payphones and landlines became obsolete and cell and smart phones became ubiquitous – CVM changed its name to ConnectUp in 2012 to reflect its changing services.
As the use of and demand for voice mail lessened, “People were having a hard time accessing the free cell phones, because of lack of information, and challenges with the application process,” says Lambert. “I sent a broadcast voicemail message to CVM subscribers out about the free cell phone programs and we were flooded with calls immediately.” With this knowledge, Lambert was able to shift CVM from “a provider of voice mail to a provider of information.”
ConnectUp then expanded to include broadcast messaging about job opportunities and community resources, referrals to discount telecommunication providers, and low-cost cell phones and computer resources. The impact of these changes were monumental and allowed those living phoneless to progress alongside technology with the growing use of cell phones.
Throughout the years, CVM/ConnectUp became an important resource for networking, community connections, job and housing search, and keeping in touch with loved ones and support systems. Eileen remembers, “During its existence, CVM had the unique ability to offer so many people a means to connect with their community, regardless of their life situation.”
While Solid Ground is sad to say goodbye to a program that was once so innovative and impactful, funding cuts meant CVM/ConnectUp was no longer sustainable for us to continue to offer.
Fortunately, information about jobs, housing, health care, social services and community can still be accessed through Solid Ground’s Resource Wire, which can be received by enrolling through email. Also, InterConnection’s Connect All (Affordable Technology for All) webpage for low-cost computers, phones, etc. provides people living on low incomes access to technological resources.
Here are snapshots of just a few of the people whose lives were changed thanks to CVM (photos by Rajiv Kapoor):