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Giving voice(mail) to the homeless

Lu’ma Native Housing Society has launched a program to provide phone numbers and voice-mail boxes to homeless -- as well as phoneless -- Canadians.

Voice mail provides the homeless with the means to be reachable by prospective employers or landlords, as well as to stay in touch with family and social service providers.

“We take having our own phone number for granted,” project manager James Foster told a small crowd of local reporters at a launch event. “Vancouver’s most impoverished citizens do not.”

Thirty Vancouver-area service providers have already begun delivering voice-mail boxes to their clients.

“It’s really provided a sense of accomplishment for our clients,” said Christine Smith-Parnell, who directs Vancouver Aboriginal Transformative Justice Services. “The biggest thing that this has brought is a greater connection to families.”

In addition to providing individual phone numbers and voice-mail boxes, the system allows organizations to “broadcast” messages to multiple clients on the system. An employment program could notify all its clients of upcoming job openings, for example.

“What a great piece to add to support people who are rebuilding their lives,” said Mayor Gregor Robertson, who demonstrated the system at a Thursday afternoon media launch.

The system is operated by Community Voice Mail, a Seattle-based organization that claims to have provided voice mail to 40,000 people through more than 2,000 service agencies across the U.S. The Lu’ma project is the group’s first program in Canada.

Cisco Systems, Coast Capital Savings, and the British Columbia Transmission Corporation provided funds to keep the free system operating for one year. Lu’ma seeks funders for future years.

“Voicemail is an important tool,” said Patrick Stewart, who chairs the Aboriginal Homelessness Steering Committee for Metro Vancouver. “We also need more housing in Metro Vancouver for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.”

Monte Paulsen reports for The Tyee.

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