ROBERT LITTLE was unemployed when his Toronto apartment building burned last summer.
Homeless and penniless, he tried for months to find an apartment before he finally found his saving grace -- voice mail.
With his new v-mail account, Mr. Little was able to offer prospective landlords something he hadn't had before -- a phone number with his own voice message at the other end. In December, he landed an apartment. Now he's using his voice mail to try to find a new job.
''Having voice mail has allowed me to plug back into society,'' says the lanky former New Yorker, who moved to Toronto 20 years ago. ''In this global village, there's a stigma to not having a phone. The first thing people ask you for after they meet you is your phone number. If you don't have one, you get ostracized.''
Toronto is the first major city outside the United States to give voice mailboxes free to the homeless and the phoneless who live on society's fringes.
''This voice-mail project is an affordable way for people who have no phone to keep in touch with landlords, employers, family, and friends,'' says Tom Allen, who organized the Toronto project for Central Neighborhood House, a support organization for the homeless.
Interest is also growing in Sweden, Finland, England, Australia, and South Africa, says Patricia Barry, executive director of Community Technology Institute in Seattle. The nonprofit group sets up nonprofit community voice-mail systems anywhere it is invited to do so.
''This is a basic, compelling idea,'' she says. ''It's not a panacea. But it does level the playing field for people who otherwise would lack one of the most basic tools for working in this world.''
Initial plans in Toronto were for 50 voice mailboxes, but the pilot project begun in November now has 100 subscribers who receive the service free of charge. The $40,000 (Canadian; US $28,590) computerized voice-mail setup is funded entirely by the United Way, the city of Toronto, and the province of Ontario.
Initial results from the project were tallied in a recent survey of 30 participants: 15 used voice mail to find jobs, five to find housing, and five to get job interviews. Participants typically check their voice mail 10 to 12 times a day, calling from a pay phone or social agency.
Toronto's v-mail project developed independent of community voice-mail programs in the US that have expanded from Seattle in 1991 to 10 cities whose systems can hold 8,000 voice mail-boxes. The largest is in Minneapolis-St. Paul, but New York City's new system may soon surpass it.
Other cities with community voice mail include Seattle, Portland, Ore.; Salem, Ore.; San Jose, Calif.; San Diego; Madison, Wis.; Raleigh, N.C.; Schenectady, N.Y.; soon to be joined by Boston and Aberdeen, Wash., US advocates say.
Ms. Barry and other proponents say that a major stumbling block is the notion that voice mail is a ridiculous perk for a person struggling simply to find shelter and enough to eat.
But those who use it on the streets say voice mail has made a difference.
''When I first came to Toronto I lost a job because I was staying in a hostel at the time and no one gave me the message an employer had called -- until six days later,'' says Chris Glenn, who arrived in Toronto from western Canada without money, a job, or a place to live. ''This is helping fix the things in my life that are broken. It's the first step.''