Universal Voice Mail

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Jenn Brandon
Community Technology Institute

How do people find a job without a telephone? How do they avail themselves of services, receive timely information, or stay connected to loved ones if they do not have a reliable message number? Even in this very wired age, the need for a phone number remains; the lack of a constant telephone number becomes a very real obstacle for the homeless or phoneless.


Communities around the world have different levels of technological sophistication for supporting the everyday conversations of its members. The health of a community is sustained by these conversations and people who are blocked from this universe of conversations are, in a fundamental way, blocked from membership in the community. For that reason the integration of people into the broad community conversation network is important to all communities. Voice mail is a low-cost solution that substitutes for dial tone for those unable to afford it. Community Providing voice mail to a community of people cut off from the communications infrastructure is technologically plausible and works well in urban environments where there is existing infrastructure (telephone service, community providers, and pay telephones); however, the need for the service exists anywhere there are disconnected people. The audience of users runs the gamut from the homeless to the working poor to people fleeing domestic violence or dealing with health problems in need of a confidential communication link that is easy to access.


In 1991, two program directors at the Seattle Worker Center conceived of a small project that had an unpredictably potent impact. Called Community Voice Mail (CVM), the idea responded practically to a specific problem: How can a homeless person find work or housing, receive medical or social services, or navigate daily life without a reliable and direct point of contact? Furthermore, how can the job developer, the doctor, the advocate, in short, the social services system charged with the mission to respond to the needs of the poor and homeless, do so efficiently and effectively if they must devote hours to tracking down the individuals they serve?

Community Voice Mail responds to this need by acting like a home answering machine for thousands of people across a community. The CVM service is a shared resource operated by the CVM national office and a local community-based organization that takes on the role of host. This host builds a network of participating agencies to maximize the distribution of the resource cost-effectively. People in crisis and transition may enroll in CVM through any number of social, human, or health services agencies in the community. By providing multiple points of access, the service allows practical and flexible eligibility criteria while maintaining basic measurement standards.

As of 2008, the program operates in forty-one U.S. cities and in Melbourne, Australia, connecting more than 461,000 people annually. The CVM national office provides guidance on how to start a CVM service and supports the resulting federation of peer sites. Cisco Systems is the majority funder of the nonprofit program and donated equipment and software for a centralized network that uses Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) to manage accounts for tens of thousands of users. The network’s advanced capabilities include a broadcast messaging feature that is used to distribute information about job openings, training opportunities, community resources, and emergency weather warnings to the voicemail subscribers.

Connecting individuals via communication services integrates people into existing communication networks but, also, helps establish new networks. These networks could help support the community of people who use the system by allowing the users and the managers of the system to share relevant information and mobilize users in relation to specific issues and events.

Universal voice mail presents a meaningful pattern and objective that can assist communities by encouraging the integration of all people into the community. At the same time the employment of this pattern will necessarily take a wide variety of forms depending on many factors. These forms will be determined by the people who will use the services, organizations in the community that are providing the services, and the general nature and climate of social services in the community. Other things, including the technological infrastructure, social capital, and the ability to raise funds in the community, perhaps through an innovative commercial sector are relevant as well. The dedication of the organizers is also key, as is their ability to collaborate and incrementally improve the level of support over time. Since technological systems are still changing rapidly (although they are unevenly distributed, with the more technically sophisticated systems concentrated in economically privileged regions) the nature of the service needs — and the technological support that is needed to support the service — will undoubtedly change as well.


Universal voicemail should be available as a low-cost alternative to telephone service so that all people, regardless of income, have a reliable point of contact that maintains dignity and restores connection to opportunity and support.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Even in this very wired age, the lack of a telephone number can be a real problem. Universal Voice Mail is a low-cost solution for those unable to afford their own telephone. Potential users include the homeless, the working poor, people fleeing domestic violence, or those otherwise in need of confidentiality. Universal Voice Mail should be available as an alternative to telephone service so that all people have a reliable point of contact and a link to their community.

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