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Lu’ma Native Housing Society

Without a phone, how do you get a job? or find a place to live? How do you stay in touch with family? or cope with emergencies? Phones have become such an integral part of our lives that we don’t even think about them, until they’re not there…

Two years ago, Chrystal Conway was living on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. She had been there for four years, addicted to heroin for eight, and estranged from her 10-year-old son Rain, who was in the custody of her aunt, for most of his life. “That was the lowest I’d ever been in my addiction,” says Conway in a low voice, memories clouding her expressive features. “I just thought, ‘I’m done, I can’t do this anymore.’ There wasn’t anyone pushing me, it was something I got up and did on my own.”

Determined to reestablish a relationship with her son, Conway quit heroin and sought methadone treatment to stay clean. The next steps were to find work and reconnect with her family, but they were difficult to accomplish without a cell phone. “They have a phone here [at Atira housing] but it only phones out, so it’s very difficult to receive messages.”

After hearing about a new program from a staff member at Atira Women’s Resource Society, Conway became one of the first recipients of a Community Voice Mail number. Having a private phone number on which potential employers could leave messages spurred her job hunt forward; within two months Conway found part-time work with the WISH Drop-In Centre Society’s Safety Patrol, distributing outreach supplies and providing support to women working the streets around the Centre.

She also used her voice mail to schedule doctor and dentist appointments, and – her ultimate goal – visits with Rain and other family members. “When my aunt found out I was working and that I’d been off the heroin for a year and a half, she phoned me and said I could see him on Mother’s Day,” says Conway, a radiant smile lighting up her face. “I hadn’t seen him in years, so it was really nice.”

Launched in February 2010 by Lu’ma Native Housing Society, the Community Voice Mail program is an invaluable resource for people without a reliable means of contact, says project manager James Foster. A grant from Vancouver Foundation totalling $50,000 over two years helped to establish the program and purchase 500 live local phone numbers. The numbers are distributed freely to “anyone who needs one – people are using them to obtain health care, to look for work or housing, to flee abuse and keep in contact with family. Anyone who is in crisis or transition, or who can’t afford a phone number, qualifies.”

Batches of Community Voice Mail numbers are distributed to front-line organizations and caseworkers in the community, who then assign them to clients as they see fit. They take less than five minutes to set up with a suggested greeting script and are entirely free of charge to users, who can retrieve their messages from anywhere. “One of the important aspects of this program is that because the phone number is local and the greeting is in the client’s own voice, there’s no poverty stigma attached to it,” says Foster earnestly. “So they can confidently give that phone number to a prospective employer or landlord, and they won’t be alerted to this person’s situation.” When clients no longer need their voice mail accounts, they are recycled and assigned to someone new.

Community Voice Mail can also be used as a longer-term solution for people living impoverished lives “so they can stay connected to the world if they have to choose between a phone number and putting food on the table,” explains Foster. “But it’s generally a goal-oriented program and it’s meant for getting people from point A to point B.”

Having reached her own “point B,” Conway is still looking ahead. “My next big goal is I’m going to move to the Island – change my whole environment – and my aunt is going to give custody back to me,” says Conway, who looks forward to enrolling Rain in soccer and going back to school to upgrade her computer skills. “It’ll be better for me,” she says with determination and confidence, “because that’s where my mom and my dad and my sister are. Family support is number one and I’m going to need that.”

And while Conway’s account is an inspiring one, it is far from the only Community Voice Mail success story. Of the 500 numbers originally purchased, 400 of them are currently in use by clients, and another 500 have already been ordered, doubling the program’s reach. Clients keep their numbers for an average of six months, and Foster proudly observes that 70 per cent of users report having achieved at least one of their planned goals by the time they leave the program.

Foster’s belief in the program is palpable, and his enthusiasm contagious. “The program is a huge success because it helps people who already work in the community to do their jobs better – they have a useful tool to help people help themselves,” he says. “And there’s nothing more important for people in crisis and transition than being able to help themselves. That is the most fundamental way for anyone to effect change in their life.”

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Your Comments:

September 28, 2010
Hi: Finally something practical and needed in a community that has been neglected, ignored, punished for being poor or addicted. We live in a country with such wealth we choose NOT to do what we should or can do. GREED and the notion of entitlement contributes to the apathy and lack of compassion. There is no valid reason that in Canada we have the homeless problem, affordability issues it all boils down to a willingness to share the financial pie. In the end we all pay directly or indirectly. Maybe we should use the example that Amsterdam did when they finally resolved the homeless issues once and for all. &^&^&^^ or get off the pot..we care or we don't otherwise lets stop the band aid solutions and put our money where our morals ethics should be...this program is clearly a life ring thrown to people who are drowning and some are actually grabbing it...Well Done!
Diana Morency, Vancouver West End

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