ConnectUp: Using communication technologies to link people with essential services

ConnectUp 2013Solid Ground’s ConnectUp program is a communication hub that provides a wealth of access to information for people living on low incomes in King County. Formerly known as Community Voice Mail, the program changed its name in 2012 to better represent its broadening services and the ever-changing landscape of telecommunications.

Originally developed to provide access to personal voice mail for those without phones seeking employment, ConnectUp has expanded to include broadcast messaging, education and outreach, and referrals to discount telecommunication providers.

For people experiencing homelessness or living on low incomes, access to information and the ability to contact resources are vital. As face-to-face interactions and paper submissions are being replaced with technology, it is almost impossible to seek assistance without this access.

ConnectUp Program Supervisor, Lambert Rochfort, described telecommunications as a bridge between people and services. “It’s very difficult to get a job, housing or access services without a phone and the internet. And it’s only going to get worse as more and more companies will only let you apply for jobs online. If you can’t apply online, you have to call them. Even if someone needs services like housing or health care, they still need a phone to call 2-1-1.”

Spreading the word

The program takes advantage of all the ways telecommunications can disseminate information. The Resource Wire – ConnectUp’s blog and broadcast messaging system – spreads the word about job fairs, employment opportunities, workshops and classes, job training, community resources and social services. Through email, Facebook, Twitter, blogging and voice mail, ConnectUp can broadcast a wide range of information.

It was through resource broadcasting that many people found out about discount phone programs. “Over time people were more interested in getting free cell phones through us than they were in getting voice mail,” Lambert explained. “And we, by default, became the place to go and the people to ask about these cell phone programs. Nobody was really helping people access them. We shifted from being a provider of voice mail to a provider of information.”

A hub for information

ConnectUp became the coordinated entry point through 2-1-1 for people needing free or discounted cell phones, internet, voice mail, home phonessmart phones and computers. Staff explain the programs available, help them figure out which programs they are eligible for, and assist them with the application process.

“I’m not aware of any other agency in the country that’s doing quite what we’re doing in helping people access the phone and internet discount programs,” Lambert expressed. “Seems like in most places, people are left on their own. 2-1-1 can refer them, but the operators are not up to date on the programs and who is eligible. We’re doing something unique as far as the information and referral, but also the education and outreach.”

Hooking people up to independence

In the coming year, ConnectUp will seek to integrate telecommunications into Solid Ground’s Housing services. Their vision is that, as clients are set up in housing, they will be referred to ConnectUp to apply for low-cost phone and internet services, and will sign up for the Resource Wire. Clients will use the connectivity to turn on utilities, seek and maintain employment, receive information on community resources and events, integrate financial empowerment through financial literacy messages, and stay in touch with social services.

By giving clients the freedom to seek out resources themselves, access to communication technology reduces isolation and affords the ability to take some control over their circumstances. Connectivity through technology supports independence and confidence and fosters self-supporting behavior that leads to quicker stabilization.

Access to communication technology is imperative because it is a link to loved ones, support, opportunity, education, employment and a higher quality life. According to Lambert, “Telecommunications should be considered a basic human right that everyone can have access to, regardless of how much money they have. ConnectUp is trying to make that possible by removing the barriers that exist for people living on low incomes to accessing communications technology.”

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Join us for a program assessment of Seattle Community Voice Mail

Solid Ground’s Community Voice Mail (CVM) program has been using voice mail technology to connect homeless and phoneless folks to employers, housing and family for more than 20 years. With the technology landscape rapidly changing, the program has been looking at how it can continue to help low-income people overcome barriers to communications and technology. Two graduate students from the University of Washington Evans School of Public Affairs undertook an in-depth program assessment this year and will be presenting their findings at Solid Ground on June 6. The event is also an ice cream social!

The project involved evaluating the CVM program, assessing the communications needs and barriers of the clients it serves, and strategizing to expand and evolve the CVM program to keep up with clients’ needs in the 21st century. The findings and recommendations go beyond what CVM currently offers to examine the broader communications and technology needs of very low-income people in King County.

CVM Present & Future: Presentation
Wednesday, June 6, 4-5:30 pm
Solid Ground Headquarters, 1st Floor Main Conference Room
1501 North 45th Street, Seattle, WA 98103

At “CVM Present & Future” you will:

  • Learn the findings from the Seattle CVM program assessment
  • Understand the telecommunications needs of low-income people
  • Consider recommendations for the future of Seattle CVM
  • Discover new low-income telecommunications programs
  • Hear the stories of CVM clients and agency partners
  • Reveal CVM National’s new direction
  • Enjoy free ice cream!

There will be brief comments from staff, program participants and CVM National, and then the UW interns will present the findings and recommendations of the CVM program assessment, followed by questions and answers.

Seattle Community Voice Mail Seattle is a partnership between Solid Ground and the Community Voice Mail National Office (which is unveiling a new name soon!).

To RSVP, or for more information, please email cvm@solid-ground.org.

Low-cost Internet for families receiving free school lunches

Editor’s Note: This article was originally written by Lambert Rochfort for the Seattle/King County Community Voice Mail Blog.

Would your family like to have high-speed Internet at home but can’t afford it? A new program from Comcast called Internet Essentials offers high-speed Internet for $10/month, a laptop computer for $150, and free Internet training, for families with children who receive free school lunches through the National School Lunch Program.

The Internet Essentials program was created because, when Comcast acquired NBC Universal in January, the Federal Communications Commission signed off on the merger so long as Comcast agreed to help low-income households get online.

Participants in the Internet Essentials program will receive:

  • Fast home Internet for just $9.95 a month + tax.
  • A low-cost netbook computer available at initial enrollment for just $149.99 + tax.
  • Access to free Internet training, online, in print and/or in the classroom.
  • Norton Security Suite online security software, with parental controls.

The computer is optional, you do not have to get the computer to receive discounted internet service. If you chose to buy the $150 computer, they will send you a computer coupon, a list of eligible computers and a list of local stores that sell those computers and accept Comcast vouchers.

Comcast promises that there will be no price increases, no activation fees, and no equipment rental fees.

With cable Internet like Comcast Internet Essentials, your family should be able to do all the things they want to do online, like email, homework, sharing photos, job searches, paying bills, watching videos, downloading music and more. The download speed is up to 1.5 Mb per second and upload speed is up to 384 Kb per second.

Your household is eligible to participate if it meets all of the following criteria:

  • You are located where Comcast offers Internet service: Comcast does offer Internet in most of King County; when you apply for the program, they can tell you whether their Internet service is available at your address.
  • You have not subscribed to Comcast Internet service within the last 90 days.
  • You do not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment.
  • You have at least one child receiving free school lunches under the National School Lunch Program: Children are eligible to receive free school lunches if their household income is below 130% of Federal Poverty Level, which amounts to monthly income of $1,594 for a family of two, $2,008 a month for a family of three, $2,422 for a family of four, $2,836 for a family of five (and add $414 of monthly income for each additional family member).

Customers will be accepted into the program for three full school years. Any household that qualifies during the next three school years will remain eligible for the program as long as a child eligible for a free school lunch is still living in the household. To participate in Internet Essentials, you must verify that your child is currently certified to receive free school lunches by providing a copy of this year’s acceptance letter or other document from your child’s school or school district demonstrating free-lunch status at their school. You will need to re-certify your child’s school enrollment each year to continue to participate in Internet Essentials and receive a discounted Internet service rate.

Starting this school year, families may sign up for Internet Essentials by calling 1-855-8-INTERNET (1-855-846-8376). Note that an application is not available publicly, you must call Comcast to request an application. When you call, they will verify your eligibility and then mail you a customized application to your address, which only you can use. If your application is approved they will send you an acceptance letter with instructions on how to get your internet service set up. For more information call 1-855-846-8376 or visit their website InternetEssentials.com.

Note: Solid Ground does not yet have any experience with or feedback about this service. If you sign up, let us know how it goes for you! Thanks.

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