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Google expands free phone number and voicemail project

Google is partnering with homeless shelters to give out free phone numbers and voicemail to San Francisco's homeless.

Google is partnering with homeless shelters in San Francisco to distribute free phone numbers and voicemail accounts to those without homes, the company said Wednesday.

The Internet giant is expanding a service that was started by Grand Central, a San Francisco-based start-up that Google acquired last year. Grand Central's technology allows calls to be routed to a home, business, or cell phone using a single phone number. The service offers people a way to organize and unify their communications, a Google spokesman said.

Grand Central had already been offering the free phone number and voicemail service to people in San Francisco through Mayor Gavin Newsom's Project Homeless Connect, which brings together nonprofit organizations and other social-service providers in one location to provide on-the-spot services for homeless. The services include medical, mental health, substance abuse, housing, dental, and legal services, plus free eyeglasses, California ID, food, clothing, and wheelchair repair.

Google image

Since the acquisition of Grand Central last year, Google has been participating in periodic Project Homeless Connect events in which it has been providing the homeless with free phone numbers and voicemail accounts that they can access from any phone. More than 4,000 phone numbers and voicemail accounts have been distributed this way, Craig Walker, a senior product manager of voice products for Google, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

On Wednesday, Google announced that it would expand Grand Central's project and partner directly with homeless shelters that will now be able to give out phone numbers and voicemail accounts and help individuals set up their accounts anytime. The idea is to expand the service, and eventually offer it in other cities, a Google spokesman said.

Most Americans take telephony service for granted. Nearly every household in the U.S. has phone service, thanks to the federally funded Universal Service Fund. What's more, more than 80 percent of the population owns a cell phone.

For homeless individuals, a phone is a luxury, and yet, telephony communications is an essential tool in our society. Without a phone number you can't apply for a job or even get on a waiting list for low-income housing.

Between 25 percent and 40 percent of the nation's 750,000 homeless are unemployed, according to a 2005 survey conducted by the advocacy group the National Alliance to End Homelessness. And without a way for a potential employer to reach these people, they are often destined to remain jobless and most likely homeless.

Another shocking statistic is that individuals with children make up about 40 percent of the national homeless population and the average age of a homeless person in the U.S. is 9 years old. Imagine a teacher or school social worker not able to contact a parent of a homeless child because the parent doesn't have a phone.

"When you lose your home, you lose more than your house," said Google's spokesman. "You lose a permanent way of staying in touch with family members, employers, and social service providers. Being able to give a phone number to people and access voicemail can be a very powerful thing in sustaining quality of life."