My Google Voice Wishlist Including Google Voice For The Homeless

Thanks Lifehacker for the link to my post!

All I want from Google Voice

Feedback for Google Voice

Okay, I had my Grand Central account since 2007 and eagerly awaited Google Voice like everyone else. Well, now that I’ve been using it a couple of months, I see some improvements that could be made:

  • Google Apps tied to Google Voice account
  • Reply to emails with a Google Voice message
  • Send Google Voice notes directly to other users
  • Google Voice directory (opt-in or course!)
  • Bring back Voicemail for the homeless

Things I Like About Google Voice vs Old Grand Central Service

Social Giving

I would really like to see Google bring back voicemail accounts for people who are homeless or in transistional housing like Grand Central used to offer.  The current offerings to provide voicemail numbers to people is sorely lacking.  Here in Minnesota, people who are homeless get numbers that they must keep calling into or they risk losing the mailbox.  Michael Arrington over at Techcrunch poked fun of this offering, dismissing it as marketing hype.

The Story of Shawn

What I do know is that I had an A+ Hardware Certification student named Shawn Stokes.  He was a war vet and had vision and hearing issues.  He came to the class in hopes of earning his A+ certification so he could get a job…that got him off the streets.

I didn’t know he was homeless at first but after awhile, it became obvious there was something going on with Shawn.  His clothes weren’t always clean, he brought a large bag to class and often it looked like he could use a shave.  Eventually, some of the other adult students began to give Shawn rides and told me he was staying at a homeless shelter about 2 miles away.   I told the program managers that on the days Shawn couldn’t get a ride, he was walking those 2 miles in the middle of a Minnesota winter.  I asked for bus passes.  I won’t go into the shortcomings of the program as to why they couldn’t/didn’t/wouldn’t provide any.

Even though he was homeless, Shawn had the best attendance over an 8 week period!  Shawn was also the first person who was homeless I ever loaned money to for a laptop…and got it all back.  He really changed my thoughts on how homeless people were.  I also gave Shawn rides and was happy to see the classroom of students coming together to help one another.

I kept in touch with Shawn and other students, letting them know if they needed help, I was always here.  You know how I am!

Shawn got back in touch with me the summer of 2007.  He had now been homeless for about a year (he lost his housing approx 4 months before he started the A+ class January 2007).  I set to work to ask Shawn if he wanted my help to find housing, get a job and medical attention for his various ailments.  He said yes so we set out to get him going!

Of coure, one of the first things was communication.  We got him a @gmail.com account and ditched his yahoo.  Next, I wanted to get him a voicemail number and kept saying, “Google is getting really close to reopening up the program, just wait” (geeze was I wrong).  We talked about his challenges with getting help from the VA Veteran’s hospital, seeing his parole officer (long story), getting around on the bus, how his laptop was stolen at the shelter, his upcoming surgery and so on.  I was able to get him a 30 day stay at a local shelter which lifted his spirits…at least for a while.  The first thing he said was, “Adria, they give us breakfast here!”

Thank you to Bob Bono of Alliance Housing for pointing me to St. Steven’s shelter!

Please Bring Back Free Voicemail For People Who Are Homeless

So back to Grand Central, Shawn had trouble hearing so using the phone was tough.  Each day he had to try and find a phone he could use which ment a lot of walking.  Each phone was different so sometimes he could hear better and sometimes not.  He became frustated, thinking he would never find a job or get housing.  I did my best to help keep his spirits up.

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I wish Shawn had been able to have a reliable voicemail number to relieve some of the stress he had while trying to stay stafe and find a place to call his own.

Twice a year, I volunteer for Project Homeless Connect Minneapolis.  It’s a large, one day event that happens all over the US.  It’s an all volunteer nonprofit.  People come in, are greeted and have a “helper” for the day to assist them in getting around to the different services offered including

  • Legal services
  • Haircuts
  • Housing
  • Veteran’s Benefits
  • Internet Cafe (where I volunteer!)
  • Voicemail service
  • and much, much more!

Main website:  Project Homeless Connect Minneapolis

This is where I mentioned that the existing voicemail service offered to folks is substandard.  The people at the agency, Community Voicemail,  are doing their best but compared to Google Voice, it’s skimpy.

Post from Official Google blog 8/29/2007

For homeless people and others in need, not having a stable phone number can be crippling: you need one to follow up on medical appointments, keep in touch with friends and loved ones, and hear back from prospective employers.

When we acquired GrandCentral Communications last month, we were pleased to embrace their Project CARE initiative, which provides a permanent local phone number and unlimited voicemail service to people who need a way to stay connected.

GrandCentral has been operating Project CARE (“Communications and Respect for Everybody”) since April 2006, and with the help of more than 20 community outreach partnershas provided more than 5,000 phone numbers and served close to 100,000 voicemail messages to homeless and needy people in the Bay Area. Someone calling a number from Project CARE will have the same experience as someone calling a standard phone number, and voicemail messages can be stored as long as they’re needed.

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About Adria Richards

Adria Richards is a developer and entrepreneur focused on digital equality. She has been involved in more than 35 hackathon events in the Bay Area and abroad. Embracing her inner nerd, Adria moved moved to San Francisco in 2010 to pursue her passion for technology. Previously she has worked in technical and training roles for enterprise, nonprofits and startups; from Apple to Zendesk. Adria has been teaching technology and developing curriculum since 2007. Adria is a popular speaker at major tech conferences including SXSW, O’Reilly Web 2.0, Launch, The Lean Startup Conference and TEDx. She speaks at startups and coding boot camps about culture, communication and diversity. Adria has attended TED, LeWeb and MLOVE. In her free time, Adria enjoys snowboarding, yoga and bacon; not necessarily at that order. Her Twitter account is followed by President @BarackObama. She blogs at ButYoureAGirl.com and is a YouTube Content Creator.

11 thoughts on “My Google Voice Wishlist Including Google Voice For The Homeless

  1. XDS

    Google GrandCentral and GoogleVoice already do this its called Project C.A.R.E and it was rolled out in 2007 and this project is still actively being worked on !

  2. Adria Richards

    @XDS,

    I sent emails and left voicemails several times in 2007 and did not get a reply from Project C.A.R.E.. If you look at the press release dates, there’s nothing past 2006 on the page. My expectation was to speak with someone, via phone or email and find out how to connect Grand Central with a local provider.

  3. XDS

    Adria No kiddin?, That’s not good at all.
    I hate to think of all those people CARE cards where sent to someday find themselves without a lifeline.

    I work for a large PIRG in the north east, I’m going to use what resources I have to see what our state and surrounding states have available in the way of Drop VoiceMail boxes for low income/homeless.

    It would also be interesting to see just how many of the invitations handed out to these CARE recipients have converted to GV.

    Their are also completely free hardware based options like new startups that only charge fees for premium services and/or for completely free VoipUser.org .
    However with these you do need hardware and a broadband connection.

    I think if a service is going to be truely Viable/Secure and self sustaining for life it needs to be controlled by the GOV. Possibly BlueStateDigital which runs the presidents web backend.

    However certain security assurances would need to be made to users but i think something like this would be great to not only take load off of already stressed low cost VoIP solutions (not only GV) but also give people with no means of communications a 50/50 shot of staving off being left out in the cold.

    I look forward to your reply
    XDS

  4. Adria Richards

    @XDS,

    That’s a good question…Were folks who received Grand Central C.A.R.E. cards for voicemail converted to Google Voice? I haven’t checked my Grand Central account with my archived messages in a few months and don’t know of anyone who didn’t opt for the upgrade.

    The problems I pointed out with “requiring” people to check their voicemail or lose it were:

    Hospital Stay due to health problems

    Jail due to arrest, parole violation

    Rehab due to drug or alcohol problems

    I was really excited to think that nation wide, all the Project Homeless Connect’s could use the Grand Central/Google Voice service…and they still may. I just know it didn’t happen in time to help Shawn.

  5. XDS

    The problem with this is that their is no regulation for abuse of the system.

    The way I see it it is very simple.
    What we need is a scaled down GV version for low income and homeless citizens, something that everyone can utilize if they can show they fall under NE Lifeline standards (which is a very more than fair standard I might add) , perhaps limiting them to only a certain number of mobile number slots and a bracket of SMS messages per month.

    But even this wouldn’t be enough.

    We really should get BSD, Obamas OFA, and GV together and see if they can’t iron something like this out.

    Kind Regards,
    XDS

  6. Emmett Bryant

    Adria,

    I am an eyewitness of you working with Shawn, as one of the students of the class and his friend. You gave him so much hope and renewed faith in people. Shawn has a good heart that needs healing. You are a woman that puts her belief in action. You are an “outreacher” who opens her arms out wide to help others that are in true need. This is can be such a vulnerable position but you do what you have to do. You are a champion fighter for the unserved and the underserved. You are the real deal!

  7. Jeremy

    I’m glad to see someone articulate this need. A few years ago I worked on a United Way campaign called “Unite to End Homelessness” here in Seattle. It was a one-day event where individual and corporate volunteers brought together various critical services under one roof and opened the doors to anyone who needed them. It was a massive event that served hundreds of homeless people in the local area. Although I believe that sort of thing should happen every day, it felt good to participate.

    Anyway, during that event I learned how important it is for the homeless to have access to voicemail. No phone number == no job. When Google Voice came out I thought immediately of this need and how – with a few slight modifications like a voicemail-only option with no phone required for setup – the Google Voice service could meet this need.

    So, thanks for the post. I will forward it to the two people I know at Google.

    Cheers,
    Jeremy

  8. Jonathan

    There are a couple of alternatives to Google Voice for stand-alone voicemail accounts: RingCentral.com, and SipGate.com. Both give you a free phone number, and neither one has a “use it or lose it” policy.

    RingCentral forwards messages as attachments to your email inbox. SipGate allows you to call in from any phone to check voicemail. Also, SipGate can be used as a forwarding phone number like Google Voice once the homeless guy gets his own phone.

  9. Gerad Munsch

    I know what it's like to be homeless. It sucks.

    I know what it's like to struggle to pay for phone service and/or access a phone. It sucks.

    Google Voice has done WONDERS for me, and I honestly do not think I would be where I am right now without it, infact, a voicemail that was left on my Google Voice account landed me my job at McDonald's.

    I'm doing better now, and I can only take life as it is presented to me, a day at a time.

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