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Free voicemail service seeks funds to further help homeless find housing, jobs

Mark Erpelding, executive director of Open Access Connections, testifies before the House Housing Finance and Policy Division March 20 in support of a bill sponsored by Rep. Hodan Hasssan, right, that would provide voicemail services for homeless and low-income populations. Photo by Andrew VonBank

Phone numbers are vital to job hunters. You need them to submit online applications, set up interviews, and to hear back from possible employers.

This poses a major problem for the hundreds of Minnesotans who don’t have phones and are trying to get out of homelessness and unemployment, said Mark Erpelding, executive director of Open Access Connection.

The nonprofit provides free voicemail services to homeless and low-income people throughout the state, to help them find and keep housing and jobs.

HF1506, sponsored by Rep. Hodan Hassan (DFL-Mpls), would appropriate $85,000 to support these services during Fiscal Year 2020 and again in Fiscal Year 2021. The funding would also allow the organization to expand its work in Greater Minnesota.

It was held over by the House Housing Finance and Policy Division Wednesday for possible inclusion in an omnibus bill.

A companion, SF79, is sponsored by Sen. Kari Dziedzic (DFL-Mpls) and awaits action by the Senate Agriculture, Rural Development, and Housing Finance Committee.

When working with Hennepin County, Hassan was struck by the difficulty of finding clients after an initial meeting. With no set address, letters weren’t guaranteed to reach them, and without a phone it could be impossible to confirm if a client received the paperwork and documents needed to maintain their benefits, she said.

“If you apply for a job and your employer can’t get a hold of you … you are not going to get that job. The same goes with housing,” which is incredibly competitive, Hassan said.

Open Access Connection started providing voicemail services in 1994 and partners with governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations to serve about 2,600 people a year, Erpelding said.

It takes less than 10 minutes to set people up with unique phone numbers, with personalized greetings, that can be put on applications and resumes and given to friends, family, doctors, or service workers. The voicemail can be accessed from any phone at any time, he said.

Rep. Jeremy Munson (R-Lake Crystal) asked why Open Access Connection was still using a call-in voicemail system instead of free, online services, like Google Voice, to cut costs and limit the program’s reliance on government funding.

Google Voice and similar services require reliable internet access, which is usually more difficult to find than a phone. They may also require a cellphone number to sign up, Erpelding said.

Consistent internet access is even more difficult to find in rural areas, making these programs nearly impossible to use reliably statewide, Rep. Kaohly Her (DFL-St. Paul) said.

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