Homeless voicemail: Only in the Valley

Never having been to San Francisco, I don’t know what the calibre of the city’s homeless population is like vis a vis the Toronto homeless. It’s possible that many of the San Francisco down-and-out are merely in between public relations jobs, or are biding their time waiting for another senior VP spot to open up at a dot-com — the kind of thing you might need, say, a free voicemail account for. Google says it is providing all of the homeless with their own lifetime voice number via GrandCentral, the Web telecom venture it acquired last year.

I guess homeless people in San Francisco don’t need blankets the way homeless people in Toronto do, and they probably don’t need food either. Presumably there’s lots of second-hand golf pants and mesh shirts and whatnot lying around for them to wear as well, so they’ve got that covered. What they really need is voicemail. And maybe an assistant to answer the voicemail, but I can tell that Google is starting small. Maybe they’ll build up to the assistant thing. And maybe the next move will be free paper-shredding for those important documents.

I just know that someone is going to tell me that voicemail will help homeless people get social assistance, and maybe get an apartment or at least a room, and that lots of government departments require you to have a phone number, etc. etc. And maybe all of that is true. But social agencies have been handling that for years. Will free voicemail help? Maybe, maybe not. It sure helps Google look good — and yet, it seems almost absurd on the face of it. Why not just invite them to the Googleplex for a day of free gourmet lunches and foosball games in the cafeteria?

22 thoughts on “Homeless voicemail: Only in the Valley

  1. I'm that guy that's going to tell you it helps the homeless. You need to move beyond the image of the Toronto homeless that are at wit's end, dealing with substance or psychological issues that you see on the street asking for change – there are the 'near homeless' or those that go back and forth between having housing and not. It is those populations that can use voicemail to get jobs, stay in touch with family, etc…

    Sure, google could have an 'eat for a day event' at the Googleplex or invest their money somewhere else (although you do know about their philanthropy) however… why not stick with what they know and provide a service as part of what they already have? Using San Fran as a pilot for giving the homeless access to Grand Central is a novel concept… why not?

    My frustration with this piece is that you didn't give it a whole lot of thought – you just said… well… the homeless must be hungry and cold, so… why not just focus on that? There's lot of research around technology and the homeless, see here:


    You might keep your eye on this CHI student design contest that has challenged people to use technology to aid the homeless in some way, I'm sure it will yield some interesting results: http://www.chi2008.org/student_design_competiti… .

    • Thanks, Sean. For a minute or two there, I was afraid no one was
      going to come along and make that argument 🙂

      Contrary to your suggestion though, I did give this some thought. I
      know there are gradations of homelessness, and that technology of
      various kinds can be useful for some of the “near homeless.” I'll
      give you that. Heck, there's a homeless guy with a blog. I just
      don't think voicemail ranks anywhere near the top of the list of
      things most homeless people need.

      And while it may be one of the things Google can give, it's also true
      that giving it makes for great marketing for Grand Central.

      On Fri, Feb 29, 2008 at 12:19 AM, Disqus

      • oops – should have posted as a reply, sorry for doubling up (see below). i guess i don't see this as all that effective publicity.

        glad you recognize the variations within homelessness…. and you're right, the homeless need homes – that's priority number one. however, there are things people can do to help even improve quality of life or to give some assistance and this is an area where google has resources and it's something that can be useful.

        i recently did some research out of the university of toronto around the homeless and technology and you'd be surprised how many use e-mail and voicemail – i thought e-mail would be out of the question, but it's not.

  2. Actually, it's not just in the Valley… and it's not new either. There's an organization that's been around for years called Community Voice Mail (http://www.cvm.org/) that gives free voicemail to the homeless around the country…

    • Thanks, Mike. Found out about CVM after I wrote the post. Do you
      think it's a good idea?

      On Fri, Feb 29, 2008 at 1:43 AM, Disqus

  3. is the marketing op really all that good for google out of this? i'm not convinced this is that effective for lasting or impactful publicity.

    • Well, Sean — I'm sure they're counting on a lot of those homeless
      people to start using Google to search for places to live, used
      clothing stores, etc. 🙂

      On Fri, Feb 29, 2008 at 8:25 AM, Disqus

  4. cmon Mathew – let's not go down the route of the other blogger…. let's realize that homeless people who want to work need a phone number to receive job opportunity calls. let's realize that giving your social aid worker's number won't look good when x company calls with a job opp.

    did google get a bit of press out of this? yes. should they have? yes. and fyi, grandcentral has been doing this since day one.

    i might be lame because my family was as close to being homeless as one could be when i was young but i think this is an excellent service that google/grandcentral is doing and it should be a nationwide or worldwide program.

    • I already admitted all of that, Allen — but homeless people also need
      food to eat, clothes to wear, health care (including mental health
      care), medication, education, job training and plenty of other things,
      all of which I think are indisputably more important to their lives
      than voicemail.

      On Fri, Feb 29, 2008 at 8:42 AM, Disqus

      • There are other services providing food/shelter/job training.

        Just because Google is providing this service doesn't preclude others from providing other services.

        Sometimes people need a hand up and not a hand out. That was my case. And I'm thankful to have gotten the help I did when it came to a phone number and address to respond to job inquiries, etc.

  5. Umm, you're supposedly a tech writer and you've NEVER been to San Francisco? Wow. Maybe that explains why you fill this blog with repurposed work. In any event, your comment about homeless in SF is ignorant and cruel. Before sitting down in front of your terminal next time, you might first try to educate yourself about the subject. Jeez, your ignorance on the homeless in this city is appalling.

    • Thanks for the comment, Karl. Yeah, I've never been to San Francisco
      — I guess that means my thoughts about technology are totally
      irrelevant, right? As for the “repurposed content,” it's called “my
      opinion.” If you don't like it, feel free to take your eyeballs

  6. Being once homeless I can assure you that voice mail is something that is more than welcome.

    In order to get a job, to get an apartment, to establish anything – you need a consistent way of being contacted.

    Living in squat after squat, sleeping on train after train, I can't tell you how much I am thankful for a few folks who took my phone calls for me.

    That's not a joke. It was crucial to me getting off the streets. So was a mailing address.

  7. Trying to pull something from all these arguments, firstly it's just lame to claim that someone can't write a good tech blog just because they've never been to SF. Surely one of the main points of the www. is that it is just that & increasingly it matters less & less where you are. I'm in UK, so by the same logic I shouldn't be commenting here anyway.
    I don't think publicity was a particular concern to Goog, it hardly needs it & it
    could easily make a big play of charity sponsorship & get more bonus points.
    Where the blog goes off at an angle, is that it overlooks that although adequate food & shelter are the basic essentals for life, today's world makes means of communication an added essential.& this is what Gog has given. And of course effective communication can help the homeless towards obtaining the other basics.
    Also important is the psychological effect. The homeless are ' without ' & seperated off from the rest of society going past them in another world. To have no means of communication worsens this feeling & situation. To be able to freely communicate in the same way as others lessens the sense of deprivation &' outsideness ' & is one step back into the rest of the world.

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