Taking calls for county’s homeless

By SHARON SALYER

Herald Writer

WImagine living in a homeless shelter and your lifeline to getting out is getting a job.

You turn in your resume, a potential employer calls back, and hears the name of a local shelter.

"That’s not a particularly great introduction to a potential employer," said Bill Brackin, program director for Volunteers of America’s community information line.

"There’s that image that the person at the mission is going through great personal strife and isn’t the most dependable," said Bill Donahue, who works in community relations for The Everett Gospel Mission.

Starting in December, a new community voice mail program in Snohomish County will allow clients of local social service agencies to get phone messages at their personal voice mailbox.

"The key here is we’re trying to remove a big barrier for people moving up or getting the services they need," Brackin said.

A similar program kicked off in mid-October on Whidbey Island.

Snohomish County will be the 35th area in the nation to establish such a system.

Seattle, which began its community voice mail system in 1991, was the first city in the country to have such a program. It now serves about 2,000 individuals and families each year.

Spokane, Bellingham and Vancouver also have similar programs.

"This is going to be an incredible deal, just the fact that someone with a clear conscience can fill out a job application, give a phone number and check that phone box several times a day and be able to return the call in a timely manner," Donahue said.

"The fact these voice mails are in place will increase the likelihood of them gaining employment," he added.

It isn’t just the homeless who will benefit.

"One of the uses is to help people through critical life-changing medical events when they don’t have a telephone," Brackin said. "They now would have a way to get messages from their doctors and be able to stay in touch."

A woman who was a victim of domestic violence and hadn’t been able to contact family members was able to use the system to re-establish contact, said Lisa Clark, who heads the Community Voice Mail program on Whidbey Island.

Another family living on the island who didn’t have a phone was able to use the system to stay in better contact with their children’s school, she said.

In Snohomish County, the program began as a project of one of the teams in Leadership Snohomish County, a program to give community members leadership skills.

Volunteers were able to secure funding not only for the program’s first year, but partial funding for its second, third and fourth years as well "so we know the program is going to be here," said Deborah Bolton, one of those on the project team.

Bolton, who also works at Housing Hope, an organization that provides emergency and transitional shelter for the homeless, estimates that at least one-quarter of the families using their services do not have phones and could use the new voice mail service.

The program will kick off in Snohomish County with 600 voice mailboxes. It will have a $54,000 annual budget, with additional costs the first year for hardware, training and phone lines.

There will be no charge to use the service, but adults must be clients of a local social service agency.

Voice mailboxes will be assigned to individuals for two to three months, Brackin said, long enough for someone to get a home, find a job or deal with a medical condition.

Clients will be assigned a password and be able to access the phone messaging system through a toll-free number, he said.

"We all know how reliable it is to leave a message with a friend," said Clark, who operates the Whidbey Island program.

"The beauty of voice mail is when the person calls the number the client has set up his or her own message so it sounds just like a voice mail machine at home.

"It’s desperately needed by a lot of folks."

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