Google Gives Voicemail to Homeless in SF Trial Run

Google is working with homeless shelters in San Francisco to let them offer free phone numbers and voicemail boxes to their clients for life.

The aim is to let shelters provide these facilities directly to their clients instead of requiring the homeless to register individually for a free phone number and voicemail box as they do now.

Google will set up Web sites where staff of homeless shelters can log in and get blocks of virtual phone numbers and mailboxes for their clients.

The service, called “Project Care,” is a continuation of what San Francisco startup Grand Central was doing before Google bought it up last year.

It’s a Good Thing

The free phone number and voicemail box are “key for helping people move, either from a situation of homelessness or domestic abuse,” Shireen Mitchell, founder of Digital Sisters, an organization that provides technology training to under-served communities, told TechNewsWorld.

“Having an address and a phone number and a voicemail box so someone can leave a message is critical for the homeless, especially when they apply for a job so they can get out of homelessness,” she explained.

In cases where someone’s homeless because of domestic violence, “if a call goes to the house phone and the person answering the call is the abuser, it’s difficult for the victim to change their circumstance,” Mitchell said.

“We’d like to see every homeless person in America have a voicemail box and a phone number,” Google spokesperson Oscar Shine told TechNewsWorld.

“We’re testing the project out in San Francisco right now, and, if it works, we’ll make it nationwide,” he added.

However, there is no timeline for a nationwide expansion as yet.

The Back Story

Grand Central launched Project Care to give something back to the community.

Google, whose unofficial motto is “Don’t Be Evil,” purchased Grand Central back in July of 2007 and has continued with the project, putting up booths at San Francisco’s Project Homeless Connect events where the homeless came in and signed up for a phone number. “They come up and ask for a voice mail account and we ask their name and give them a number and a password and a little card,” Shine said.

So far, 4,000 homeless people in San Francisco have obtained free phone numbers.

The process was labor-intensive — Grand Central had volunteers manning its booths — so trust Google, which is a major Internet player, to look at automating the process.

“We’ll set up a Web site so social service organizations can log on and get allocated several phone numbers that they can hand out,” Shine said. “We’re working on the Web site now.”

There’s the Rub

There is only one catch to this plan: The homeless have to find a telephone somehow.

“A lot of people use the phones at shelters and churches,” Shine said.

Well and good; but what happens when 200 homeless people point their phone numbers at one church phone?

“That adds to the problem, but churches and shelters do exist and there are other places that offer phone access,” Mitchell said, adding that this is “yet another level of the digital divide.”

One solution is to use inactive cell phones that let users dial 911 in case of emergencies, Mitchell said.

Google Is Not Alone

Project Care is similar to something Community Voice Mail, headquartered in Seattle, has been doing quietly for 15 years.

“We started in 1993 when a social worker here had a job for a client and couldn’t contact the client, so they found a local technology company to donate a voice mail server and began offering free phone numbers in Seattle,” Steve Albertson, CVM’s Director of New Initiatives, told TechNewsWorld.

CVM has expanded to 41 cities, mostly large cities in the U.S., and has helped an organization in Australia to get going.

Clients are homeless people, the unemployed and victims of domestic violence, and they get a free voice mail number.

CVM works through local agencies: It buys local phone numbers in the markets it serves, finds a local social service agency willing to host the program, that agency hires a program manger and buys voice mail capability from CVM’s Seattle offices at less than cost, then provides the voice mail to “hundreds of agencies in their communities” which provide them to their clients, Albertson said.

The host agency decides whether to charge other agencies for the voice mail service, but “in over 50 percent, they don’t charge,” Albertson said. Funding, both for host agencies and for CVM, which is a nonprofit, comes from grants and donations.

CVM works with 2,100 social service agencies in the 41 states it serves. Its latest venture is in Tulsa, Okla.

CVM sees Google as a potential partner, and has been talking with it “for over a year,” Albertson said.

“Our goal is to work with them around the country.”

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