Free voice mail helps the homeless land a job, find a home

Thursday, September 9th 2004, 12:34 pm
By: News On 6

DALLAS (AP) _ After 18 months sleeping on sidewalks and in shelters, Mel Cornelison has a job, and soon might have a place of his own. And he owes it all to voice mail.

Cornelison landed his job through free voice mail that is being offered to homeless people and others without phones in cities around the country.

The nonprofit Community Voice Mail project provides homeless people with a way for potential employers, social service agencies and relatives to contact them. It also enables them to apply for a job without having to tell a prospective employer they are living on the streets.

Dallas _ along with Denver _ last month joined a growing list of cities where homeless shelters, soup kitchens and other agencies are offering the service.

The program started in 1991 in Seattle and has grown to 37 cities in 19 states, helping more than 47,000 people find jobs and housing last year, according to Community Voice Mail. Agencies in Los Angeles, San Diego, Boston, Atlanta, Houston, Philadelphia, Detroit and New York are already taking part.

``The intangible that Community Voice Mail provides is hope,'' said national spokeswoman Patricia Bonnell. ``Without a phone number on your resume, you can't get a job.''

Hilary Terlouw, a 45-year-old woman from Bellingham, Wash., said she was living in an abandoned trailer with no electricity when she learned about Community Voice Mail three summers ago. She lives in subsidized low-income housing and has a service dog and even a computer, she said.

``It just saved my life,'' said Terlouw, who battles mental illnesses and physical disabilities. ``It really did. If I didn't have a telephone number to have doctors' offices or clinics call me back, I don't know what I would have done. I was truly at the end of my rope at that time.''

Before getting voice mail, Cornelison used to put The Stewpot _ a soup kitchen and ministry of the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas _ on his applications. But the last thing an employer wants to do is call a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen, say advocates of voice mail for the homeless.

``A lot of shelters have a pay phone that's in the community area,'' said Shannon Stewart, executive director of The Employment Project, which offers voice mail to the homeless in Chicago. ``When you ask if John Doe is available, you hear the phone being thrown down and the screaming down the hallway.''

Community Voice Mail gives each homeless person a phone number and each records a message. The numbers cannot be used for outgoing calls, but people can check their messages from any regular or pay phone. The service costs the soup kitchen or homeless shelter as little as $7 per number per month.

``It just makes people feel a lot better about themselves,'' said Larry Sykes, Community Voice Mail director at The Stewpot, which hopes to offer more than 2,500 voice mail lines in Dallas within three years. ``Unless they tell somebody they're eating at The Stewpot or sleeping under a bridge, nobody knows it.''

In Cornelison's case, Goodwill Industries was aware of his plight when it used the voice mail system to contact him and offer him a job at one of its warehouses at $5.68 an hour.

For now, the 40-year-old Dallas man still lives on the street. ``But once I start getting paydays, I'll be able to not do that anymore,'' said Cornelison, who hopes to move into a motel, if not a more permanent home.

His hiring has inspired others who frequent The Stewpot.

``I think that it is like a domino,'' said Pamela Nelson, an art teacher at the downtown ministry. ``I mean, that uplifted everybody here.''