[Hpn] Homeless have connections; Cleveland, Ohio; 7/8/02
Morgan W. Brown
Mon, 08 Jul 2002 10:19:18 -0400
Monday, July 8, 2002
Plain Dealer <http://www.cleveland.com/plaindealer>
Business News section
Homeless have connections
Plain Dealer Reporter
Jamilah Zand's book of poetry would never have hit the Cleveland Public
Library's bookshelves without e-mail.
How was she supposed to send a review copy?
"I didn't have any money for stamps," Zand said.
Zand is homeless. Last year she set up an e-mail address to apply for jobs,
schedule poetry readings and promote her book "Lines I've Lived & Other
Snippets of Life," seven copies of which are scattered throughout the
library's area branches.
"A year ago, I didn't know there was such a thing as free e-mail," said a
laughing Zand, who also has a Web site and voice mail. "Back when I [had a
home], I had to pay for e-mail."
Homeless people are turning to free e-mail and voice mail services to pinch
pennies, mask their vagabond status and give employers contact information
that they say makes it easier to get a job.
Homeless advocates say these new technologies remove the stigma many attach
to homeless people, making it easier for them to live productive lives.
This is Thomas Lewis, I'm not in right now but your call is very important
to me - I can't stress that strongly enough. Please leave a name and a
number - I repeat, a name and a number - and I will, I promise, I will get
back in touch with you. Bye.
"I stress to people to leave a strong message and not say I'm not here. Call
me back,' " said Lewis, whose booming voice greets callers to his Cleveland
Community Voice Mail box, a free service for homeless Clevelanders.
Lewis wrote his voice mail number on an AmeriCorps application about six
months ago. They called back. He answered. He got the job and ended more
than two years of life on the streets.
"Without voice mail, there is no way I would have got that job," Lewis said.
"There's no way to get in touch with me."
That is the prevailing wisdom among those who use and promote free voice
mail and e-mail for the homeless. After they conquer addictions, mental
illness and other problems that helped put them on the street, many homeless
still have trouble getting a job.
Often they don't have basic contact information or - because they don't have
those basic details - are forced to admit to a possible employer that they
"They are like, Well, OK, well I'll just file it right here,' " said Lewis,
who mimes crumpling up a job application and chucking it into a garbage can.
Few employers question whether someone is homeless if they can fill in a
shelter's address and list a phone number, Lewis said. Besides, he adds,
"quarters are scarce" and it is difficult for a homeless people to
constantly call back an employer who may consider giving them a job.
More than 60 agencies use 1,800 Cleveland Community Voice Mail boxes, which
also serve homeless families with children in the Cleveland school district,
battered women who stick with voice mail because it's harder to trace to a
residence, and families without phones who live in subsidized housing.
The voice mail gives families a place to leave messages for each other and
gives teachers an avenue to leave messages for parents, said Marcia Zashin,
coordinator of Project ACT, which works with homeless students in the
It's all the same, she said. "You can't tell it's a homeless voice mail."
Michael Gibbs, the voice mail program director, said voice mail boxes are
private. Caseworkers, for example, don't get passwords to check who leaves
messages. But Gibbs said caseworkers can check the frequency of calls, which
could indicate whether someone is using voice mail for illegal activity.
"I think this is a necessity, not a luxury," Gibbs said. "This should not be
a reward that's given out, but something that's a given to help someone get
back to self-sufficiency."
Zand hopes she is on her way to self-sufficiency - the housing advocate's
buzzword for having a job, a place to stay and a mechanism to manage life.
Zand made a long walk to a homeless shelter more than a year ago after her
second marriage failed, she drank more and more and couldn't handle living
with a string of distant relatives.
About two years ago, the native East Sider was running her own business in
Dayton that promoted her own fictional characters, the "Beau-Beau People,"
selling magnets, a board game and children's books.
"One day I had to stop and re-evaluate everything and reassess my goals,"
Zand stays at Transitional Housing Inc., a women's shelter that is
installing computers to train staff members and teach its homeless clients
about technology and the Internet. Many women use e-mail as a way to
gradually and delicately rebuild relationships with family members, said
Kathi Wilson, the group's volunteer coordinator.
"Everybody needs computer skills," Wilson added. "These women are
continually trying to improve themselves and develop new skills to grow in
the job market."
Zand makes almost daily trips to the Cleveland Public Library to check her
e-mail, which is mixed with mass messages from groups like Urban Stage and
Screen, an online performing arts resource.
She has even carried on conversations with the likes of author Samba Diop,
an assistant professor of romance languages and literature at Harvard
University. Submitting her book was a "last-ditch effort" she said. Zand,
48, has always wanted to write, and the book is a compilation of her work
from the 1970s to the present.
While at the library, Zand got the e-mail address for a contact in the
library's fiction department who reviewed new works. She corresponded via
e-mail - never mentioning she was homeless - until she was told in April
that her work was accepted.
"I never thought it was any of their business," Zand said.
"I sure would have mentioned it if it would have sped up things," she said.
Since then, Zand has booked a handful of public poetry readings - including
one last week at the Open Air In Market Square festival in Cleveland's Ohio
City neighborhood - and searches for work via the Internet. Her Web site,
www.geocities.com/akira200144108/, lists some of her poetry.
"I love looking in the card catalog online and seeing my name," she said. "I
am an author."
Contact Chris Seper at:
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Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
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