Carl is too poor to replace his tattered red Nikes or buy a decent meal.
But he has voice mail at his fingertips, and he feels the power of its possibilities - humming an Al Green song while he shoulders a pay telephone receiver at Spokane’s downtown bus station.
A construction company returned his call and wants to hire him. Time to quit his job as a day laborer.
“This is my home on the phone,” says Carl, rolling a Top cigarette. “Without this, man, I’d be working for nothing forever.”
More than 150 Spokane County poor or unemployed people like Carl, who didn’t want his last name used, are plugged into free voice mail offered by social service programs and US West.
Voice mail, once a technological trapping of the privileged, is now filtering down to the needy.
“There’s a few things in society that you need to have to make it - a phone, a car and maybe a permanent address,” says Dave Wall, operations manager of Spokane’s Union Gospel Mission. “This is trying to get everyone on an even playing field.”
The system is simple and surprisingly efficient, say social workers. Spokane Neighborhood Action Program (SNAP) issues “Community Voice Mail” recipients a seven-digit telephone number, which allows a personal greeting.
When prospective employers call, they hear the sounds of a home.
“Hi, welcome to the Wheeler residence,” Michelle Wheeler’s voice mail says, the sound of children laughing in the background.
“I don’t think it’s putting a ruse on anyone,” says Bob Peeler, SNAP’s homeless coordinator. “Some of our shelters could be in your neighborhood and you wouldn’t know it.”
Lining up help and job hunting hasn’t been so easy in the past. Employers calling shelters can quickly get the wrong impression.
“As soon as we say, ‘Union Gospel Mission,’ employers hang up,” says Wall. “It’s the stigma of the mission that prevents them from working.”
“They are discriminated against from the beginning,” says Peeler.
Voice mail is available for as little as $10 a month, but that’s a fortune for most homeless people. “Some of our guys can’t even afford a bus token,” says Wall.
The program is a hit with social workers like Peeler, who in the past have spent frustrating hours tracking down homeless people to help them get benefits.
“It’s so simple, I don’t know why we didn’t think of this sooner,” says Peeler.
Seattle pioneered the idea in 1991 and now has more than 800 free voice mail lines.
The Seattle program is garnering national recognition. A non-profit group, Community Technology Institute, now teaches other cities how to set up voice mail systems.
Twenty-one cities from San Diego to Boston will meet in Seattle next month to talk about improvements and the future of the program.
“We kind of proved the obvious. Somebody with a phone number could get a job; people without would take much longer,” says Pat Barry, CTI executive director.
Spokane’s program sprouted last fall. It currently has a capacity of 300 lines, and another 300 will be hooked up when needed.
Start-up money came from the U.S. Department of Commerce and a private foundation. About $40,000 in equipment - mostly computers - was donated by CTI.
Maintenance is surprisingly cheap. Spokane city and county governments contribute a combined $5,500.
“We’re talking about 15 cents per phone line per month,” says Peeler, who hopes to find a corporate sponsor to cover future costs.
At least one company is already helping. U S West recently opened 20 voice mail boxes for Union Gospel Mission.
The SNAP system is not without glitches. It’s difficult to discover abuse. Seattle is on the “trust system,” Barry says.
Spokane watches the hours and frequency of calls into mailboxes. Frequent late calls may indicate shady dealings, such as drug transactions.
Social workers also screen participants. “We’re not giving it to somebody who just doesn’t have an answering machine,” says SNAP spokesperson Julie Pickerel.
Increasing numbers of women use the system to escape violent relationships. Wheeler, who fled an abusive boyfriend, used SNAP’s voice mail program to get a place to live, line up job prospects and get a college loan.
SNAP managers debated the ethics of allowing a person in a shelter to have a greeting with sounds such as laughing kids.
The fastest-growing demand for voice mail in Spokane is among women trapped in violent relationships.
Women trying to escape abusers use voice mail boxes to set up appointments for counseling, interim housing and financial support. When they leave abusers, they are ready to stay away, Peeler says.
“It means we are actually saving lives,” he says.
Wheeler confirms that. The 28-year-old Tacoma woman dated an abuser for two years before leaving him last September.
During a Spokane pit stop on their way home from Montana, Wheeler and her four children ran while he was paying for gas. She only had a driver’s license in her pocket; she didn’t have money for the pay telephone, or anyone to call if she had a quarter.
She quickly entered a SNAP program for abused women, and got a voice mail box. She hawked jewelry to buy her children shoes for school.
Four months later, the voice mail box has helped her secure loans to attend Spokane Falls Community College, interim housing and job prospects.
“If I’d known about this, it could have saved me years of pain,” says Wheeler of the voice mail system.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo