Mobile Phone Use Among Homeless People

Posted by CorinneRamey on May 29, 2008

For 40,000 people a year across the U.S., voicemail is a lifeline. The Community Voice Mail (CVM) program, started in 1991, has helped provide over 40,000 homeless and low-income individuals each year with access to voicemail in 41 U.S. cities. For many CVM clients, their voicemail is their connection to a job, an apartment, and relationships with teachers, doctors, or social service agencies. (MobileActive wrote about CVM and similar programs here). However, as mobile phones have become ubiquitous across the United States -- even in the hands of homeless people -- CVM has questioned the impact and relationship of mobile phones to their traditional voicemail model.

MobileActive sat down with Steve Albertson, Director of New Initiatives at Community Voicemail, for a chat. The organization recently completed a new national client survey and pilot project that presented interesting data on how their clients use -- and don't use -- their mobile phones. "The data that the study produced was kind of surprising," Albertson said.

The study found that 21% of CVM clients -- homeless and low-income individuals -- have their own mobile phones. However, mobile phones weren't the primary means of checking their CVM mailboxes for most clients. Seventy-one percent used free phones -- like those at social service agencies -- to check their voicemail, 19% used payphones most often, and 10% used their mobile phones as the primary way of checking their voicemail. The study found that 59% of CVM clients had an email address -- most checked it at libraries or agencies -- and that average income was less than $600 a month.

"We deal with 40,000 clients a year, and based on our research probably 8,000 are using cell phones," Albertson said. In an effort to find out exactly how the homeless are using mobile phones, and whether mobiles actually contributed to increased ability to get a job and quality of life, CVM collaborated with Working Assets/CREDO Mobile to conduct a pilot study on mobile phones and the homeless. As part of the study, mobile phones were distributed to 46 clients of social service agencies in the U.S. cities of Houston, Texas, and Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota. The phones had reduced functionality -- they could only be used to call up to 16 pre-programmed numbers and receive calls from two numbers. The numbers programmed into the phone were the client's CVM mailbox, various social service agencies, and other numbers that CVM thought would be helpful. The study took place between July 10 and November 10 of 2007. The phones were primarily given to job-seekers, domestic violence victims, and HIV/AIDS patients.

Results from the project included:

  • 47% of the phones were actively used (a phone was considered "actively used" if at least one call to a pre-programmed number was made each month) by clients.
  • Usage type varied by agency. For example, an agency serving HIV/AIDS patients had the highest usage and a domestic violence agency had the lowest. Albertson suggested that this may be because the "support network" that a domestic violence victim is likely to call probably included friends and family, which they couldn't dial on the reduced functionality phones. The HIV/AIDS agency may have had the highest usage rates because of the need of clients to keep in touch with doctors about appointments and medicine availability.
  • 85% of phones calls made were to check clients' CVM voice mail.
  • Project participants made a total of 4,4041 calls on the mobile phones.

Steve said that although overall the pilot study went smoothly, CVM faced some challenges in implementing the study. For example, clients had varying levels of awareness with mobile phones. "There were some clients that didn't know you had to plug in your cell phone [to recharge the battery] from time to time," Steve said. There was also some confusion over SMS that CVM would send to alert clients when they had new messages. "Some of them thought it was spam," Steve said. One client even hacked into the phone to disable the limited usage capability. Collecting data from clients about the pilot was also tough. "Data collecting from our clients is really difficult, " Steve said. This led to a very small sample size -- out of 24 clients actively using the phones, only four responded to a voice survey. Overall, CVM found that the program was certainly useful for many of their clients, but that the work in programming phones, collecting data, and administering the program made it unlikely to be sustainable in the future in its current form. Future recommendations for the program include working with HIV/AIDS agencies and employment agencies, and encouraging case managers to take the phones from individuals who aren't actually using them.

However, despite lower-than-anticipated usage rates and the various challenges of the pilot study, Steve still sees the possibilities of mobile phones for improving the lives of the homeless. He envisions homeless people, many of whom don't have a bank account, banking on mobile phones. "There is a large percentage of our clients who don't have exposure to the banking agencies," he said. "We're trying to think about how the phone in their hand could give them access to these services."

He's also thought about ways that the Google Android platform could be customized for CVM clients. "We've talked to Google a little bit about how they could have a customized phone with CVM. They could push ads to our clients that are about resources -- targeted ad announcements. I'd love it if the ads they were looking at were for job opportunities." He imagines a phone integrated with all kinds of resources, such as email and a function similar to Google Docs that clients could use to share documents like resumes with social workers. He has also contemplated working with carriers to make it easier for homeless people to have access to prepaid minutes. "We want to start approaching some of the big prepaid vendors that might be interested in discounting prepaid services," he said. "Our clients are not people with credit cards, and nobody markets to our clients." However, he does fear that aligning with certain service providers would put CVM in too much of a marketing position. "We don't want to use our voice mail services to point our customers to products unless there's a clear benefit," he said.

However, despite all the possibilities of mobile phone, Steve said he doesn't see mobiles replacing the CVM program anytime in the near future. "One thing we hear loud and clear from our clients is that even if their cell phone has voice mail they still want their CVM number," he said. "We've been concerned that we're becoming obselete, but our clients say that's just not the case." He said that many of the CVM clients find that it's easy to lose things like mobile phones, and they don't like to give their mobile number to possible employers or other contacts. "Their situation is unstable," he said. "Their CVM number is their core communication device, even for people who have mobile phones."

Photo credit to JonJon2k8.

The The Raleigh News &

The The Raleigh News & Observer reports on how prepaid plans are making it easier for the homeless to own cell phones.

“Cell phones are increasingly popular among the Triangle’s homeless. With public pay phones quietly disappearing and prices on cell phones dropping, many homeless people say that it just makes sense.

But some social workers are concerned that the phones are an unnecessary expense that, in some cases, can be an obstacle to returning to a normal life.

Schiff, 41, who has been home-less on and off for eight years, uses his prepaid Virgin Mobile phone to look for work and get messages from potential employers.

“I call it networking,” he said while standing in line for a free lunch at the Raleigh Rescue Mission recently. “The more people I know, the better chance I have of getting a job.”

Paying for minutes ahead of time solves two problems for homeless users: uncertainty about their future finances and the lack of an address where a bill could be sent. It can also help curb the temptation to use the phone too much.”






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