Phoneless Homeless People Can Now Plug Into Voice Mail

Companies, foundations fund phone service for shelter residents

ANDRE WOODARD, living at a Salvation Army family shelter in Baltimore, fills out at least five job applications a day. When he reaches the line marked ``phone number,'' he must decide whether to leave it blank and risk a missed job or give the shelter number and risk the raised eyebrows of an employer who hears a ``Salvation Army'' salutation at the other end of the phone.

Mr. Woodard shares a dilemma with other homeless job-hunters: He is too busy to wait by the phone for the calls that might land him a job.

Now he has voice mail.

Baltimore is the second city to take part in the small but growing program launched by Bell Atlantic Mobile to provide 40 voice mail boxes for the residents of Booth House, a Salvation Army family shelter in the city.

The system is designed for homeless applicants ``aggressively pursuing employment,'' says Robert Johnson, regional vice president for the Baltimore-Washington area. Bell has already begun to expand the ``HopeLine'' program along the East Coast and will soon offer services to the homeless in the Southwest region of the United States.

The Bell service is one of an increasing number of voice-mail programs nationwide that recognize the plight of homeless job-hunters who are also phoneless. Grass-roots voice-mail initiatives in shelters across America have begun to catch the eye of corporations, as well as foundations in a position to give considerable funds to the program.

The stellar success of the relatively simple concept was recognized by the Ford Foundation last week, which awarded $100,000 to Seattle's Community Voice Mail (CVM) for Phoneless/Homeless Persons as part of its annual ``Innovations in State and Local Government'' awards.

The vote of confidence in the voice-mail project is a tribute to its high placement rate for homeless clients: The Seattle program, founded two years ago, exemplifies the success of using technology to solve human problems. Between January and September of 1993, 134 people found jobs and 189 people found housing though the CVM program.

``In 1990, a favorite client walked into the Worker Center. He happened to be a young man with considerable skills in power-plant operations. He was living in a mission and getting nowhere. A staff member said, `He needs voice mail because how do you get a job without a telephone?' '' says Patricia Barry, CVM director at the Seattle Worker Center.

Voice mail serves three purposes for the homeless: It provides a number for those who do not have access to a phone; it gets messages to the homeless to facilitate their job, day-care, and apartment hunts; and it is an anonymous answering service.

``I know for a fact that there were quite a number of people who wished that we didn't answer `Salvation Army,' '' says Connie Weis, director of Homeless and Emergency Services for the Salvation Army, ``In the past there were questions later about why you're at a shelter. It was a vicious circle.''

``Shelters have tendencies to give the wrong image - the connotation is transient and unstable,'' says Frank Gordon, director of Salvation Army operations in Baltimore. Major Gordon says he hopes that the voice-mail program can dispel some myths about the homeless. ``These are people who are seriously concerned about stability. They want to reunite their families,'' Gordon says.

Homeless applicants often lose employment opportunities for the simple reason that they cannot be contacted.

``They miss out on jobs all the time, whether they've just lost phones because they can't afford to pay their bills or they are in shelters,'' says Cynthia Hoggard, an employee at ADIA International Employment Agency, ``We have two working for us who don't have phones, so they call to check in. We try to hold things, but clients want to hear back quickly.''

Bell's program began with a college student. Marc Lind, who graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in May, sold Bell on the voice-mail concept after he helped to organize a similar program during an internship in Kentucky. He approached Bell and received a reply within three days of his call. ``They called back to say `Who do you want to do it with?' '' Mr. Lind recalls.

Lind is now job-hunting himself. ``I have an answering machine, and a house where people can send literature. For the homeless, none of that is possible,'' he says.

Bell's pilot program began in Providence, R.I., with Traveler's Aid, an organization that serves the needs of the homeless. Since the Providence program began five months ago, 17 of the 30 people who have used the voice-mail system are employed. This is a marked increase in the placement rate before voice mail, says Francine Leahey, director of Employment and Training Services for Traveler's Aid.

``It might encourage more initiative in looking for work, if the homeless applicants know that they have a solid, anonymous number,'' she says.

``It also helps to incorporate social services in the voice-mail application process,'' Ms. Leahey says, ``It enables us to know what more we can do - simple things like letting them know that the library has a daily newspaper, if they can't afford to buy one when they need to read the classified ads.''

Bell did not have to sell the voice-mail plan to the Salvation Army when they approached Gordon with the idea. In Baltimore, the eviction rate is close to 4,000 a month, Gordon says, ``These are people who need some help, and 50 to 60 percent need our help only once.''

Baltimore is the second voice-mail site for the Bell program. The company has also established new programs in cities including Pittsburgh, Wilmington, Del., Greenville, S.C., and Atlantic City -

the most recent program was started on Tuesday in Philadelphia - and has targeted Phoenix and Washington for future sites of the voice-mail project.

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