A Message for the Homeless

When you live in a five-sense city like New York, you inevitably grow immune to certain things: the pungent sidewalk smells on the sweatiest of summer days; sirens screaming outside your window every hour of the night; cattle calls at Penn station. But as hardened as I become, the one thing I'll never get used to is the city's homeless.

At least once a week while riding the subway, I encounter a homeless person pitching me for change or some food. I am constantly awed by the raw talent I witness - singing or reciting spoken word; some showcasing the natural finesse of a salesman, with witticisms many of us in business only wish for. I've always wondered though - if they are able-bodied enough to do a cold pitch in front of an entire room of strangers, why can't they get a job as a dishwasher somewhere? If they would only funnel the energy they spend pitching for change into a real job...

Of course many of them might be doing that. But what I eventually realized was that without a home address or a phone number to contact them at, how could they possibly fill out a job application? Today the AP reported a story on the Community Voice Mail project, a program that first percolated in Seattle in the early 90s. For as little as $7 a month, a homeless person can now have their own phone number and voice mail system, enabling them to follow-up on job leads. CVM reported they helped 47,000 people find jobs and housing last year. An idea so simple, yet so impactful.

Similar to micro-lending (the practice of giving small loans to disadvantaged people in order for them to grow their own businesses), CVM is an basic idea that truly empowers people to take back the reigns on their life. What seemingly simple ideas have you come across that truly make a difference?

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  • bobbie

    i wonder if they could make that service into something tangible one could give away - like a calling card. i could have an account and if a card was activated then the i would be charged the fee for their first month of service.

    i know i personally would much rather have something substantial to hand to the hurting and those who might have lost their way. this gives them the option of throwing the card away if all they are looking for is the next fix, but if by chance they truly are looking to escape that place it might allow them to have access to this service.

    this would allow them access to a stairway leading back to self sufficiency if that is what they truly desire, but creative ways of informing the homeless of the service must be found.

    by activating this card, they could hear a message from a pay phone that explains the service and their access to it. inform them of what is available to them if they are so motivated. allowing access to that stairway up if they are so willing.

    it would allow someone like me who truly wants to help to give something tangible without feeding the addictions that plague many of their lives.

  • Joanna Rice

    I agree 100% about these guys who put so much into hustling a dollar.

    There are many underlying problems with those who are homeless. The drug use, many who are mentally ill... It seems these ills are the main issues as to why they are homeless or at least on the fringe of productive soceity. Living in Harlem, the notion of the Hustler is a legendary one. These guys can and will sell anything and their pure salesmen instincts are amazing. While being bombarded with bootleg everything including cigarettes, tapes and even color contacts, I always asked myself why couldn't they put all this effort into just getting a damn job?
    But being used to being on the fringe, being legit is a foreign thing. So for every dollar I make, I have to give a portion to taxes? C'mon! So I have to be beholden to someone else's clock or whims? Bee Ess!
    I am no sociologist or anything of the sort. I am just a regular schmoe who gets up every morning and uses the same hustle she has seen and learned into feeding MY family and putting food in MY mouth. I find myself resentful of being hustled for my hard earned dollar and I challenge them to earn theirs.
    It's really ballsy to just walk up to someone on a subway platform and whine for some change - guilt tripping someone. So obviously you have no pride. So take your non pride self and get a job to be abused for a paycheck. You are not too proud for that, are you?

  • David Hooper

    Some of these guys make a lot of money being homeless.

    Being in NYC, you surely know the Naked Cowboy. Not homeless, but makes about $60,000/year doing whatever it is that he does.

  • Mike Duffy

    What makes it cost $7 a month? There's a capital cost + monthly operational costs, but $7 seems high for what *actually* required - I would guess main cost is telephone connectivity (i.e. the number of available inbound/outbound POTS lines).

    Could it be delivered for less? Would it be less credible to users if it were?

  • Rahul K. Banta


    Interesting comments. But you assume that more and more money spent on social issues will simply solve them. I totally disagree and you can simply look at the BILLIONS and probably TRILLIONS spend to date on the "war" on poverty. What has been the net result? Dependance, not Independance. More misery, not less.

    I suggest the answer lies in giving people tools and avenues to rise above. What about the role of the family? Has the government taken over the role of family?

  • argile stox

    Computer - End Program
    by Argile Stox
    ISBN 1-4137-2496-5

    Do you ever wonder about the homeless people you see in your daily travels? This is your chance to walk a mile in their shoes and experience their lives. Citizens and politicians can pretend the homeless problem does not exist, but those thrown into the situation don't have that luxury.
    Computer - End Program is one man's story. Argile Stox is a pseudonym.

    In the wake of 9/11, the life of Argile Stox is rather swiftly deconstructed. Economic downturns in the New York City area make his job obsolete. Jobs paying enough to maintain even his frugal lifestyle are hard to find, if not impossible. His savings are depleted first, then he loses his vehicle, and finally after several months his apartment. A quiet, unassuming man who always paid his own way is left standing on the street with everything he owns stuffed in a rolling duffel bag. He turns to the Salvation Army and finds housing in an all male homeless shelter until he can regroup. His hopes for the future are high. He's intelligent and capable, after all, and surely this will be a temporary setback.

    Although he isn't a drug addict, alcoholic, or convicted felon, Argile is placed in a shelter warehousing such men. Life in the shelter is structured by hard rules and domineering overseers. Newfound friends make life bearable, but Argile soon begins to suffer from his losses. The once productive self-sufficient member of society is plagued by anxiety and fear of the unknown.

    Exhausted in body, mind, and spirit, he struggles to gain needed health care, permanent housing, and a paying job. When Argile is transferred to a homeless shelter for honorably discharged veterans, he trusts that life will soon turn in his favor. What he discovers there is danger from violent residents and cruel, injust treatment at the hands of those paid to serve the homeless.

    Overwhelmed caseworkers try to distance themselves from the hopeless souls they should be serving. Psychiatric teams have as their only goals maintaining power and control. Suffering from bleeding ulcers and contemplating suicide, Argile leaves that second shelter in desperation. Even life on the street is preferable to injustice and harassment.

    With dignity and scathing honesty, Argile writes his story on the laptop purchased in his pre-homeless life. Writing is a purgative and calming exercise. The message he delivers is clear: Don't take for granted the small pleasures and blessings in life because millions of decent Americans are one or two paychecks away from homelessness.

    In closing, I must stand in agreement with points made retrospectively by the author. America has lost the war on drugs, poverty, domestic violence, mental illness, and homelessness. Until our elected officials turn their attention away from funding problems overseas, they cannot address dire social problems within our borders. This book is a sobering commentary on social problems existing long before 9/11 and the current economy. I suggest you read this book, if you have the courage.

    Laurel Johnson
    Midwest Book Review