John Boudreau, Mercury News, reports:

Today, Cisco Systems is announcing a $2.5 million grant to a Seattle non-profit agency that gives the homeless, poor and jobless — here and around the country — something most Silicon Valley residents take for granted: a voice-mail box.

“It is virtually impossible to get a job without a phone,'’ said Jennifer Brandon, executive director of Community Voice Mail, the grant recipient that works with organizations around the nation to provide free voice mail. “This isn’t a phone. But it is a cost-effective alternative. It’s a reliable and consistent phone number. It removes the stigma of being homeless or in transition.'’

(via Techdirt.)

Brandon’s organization (, which employs just four people, works with agencies such as San Jose’s Community Technology Alliance to provide the free mailboxes, a simple tool that can profoundly change the life of someone who is down and out. The voice-mail box can be accessed from a pay phone or a phone at a social-service agency.

Geno Gallegos, 35, said the free voice mail was key to landing him a job last year as a real estate title researcher. The San Jose resident, who had been a restaurant manager in Santa Clara for seven years, was laid off in 2001 and couldn’t afford a phone. He received assistance from Sacred Heart Community Service, which has 75 voice-mail accounts.

“Most employers require you have some type of telephone or voice mail,'’ said Gallegos. “It was a blessing.'’

Last year, Community Technology Alliance provided the voice-mail service to more than 620 people through 33 agencies in Santa Clara County.

Cisco’s grant is intended to double the number of people Community Voice Mail assists nationwide, from 25,000 to 65,000 by the end of 2007. It is one of the company’s larger grants to a single non-profit.

Cisco also is donating about $60,000 worth of equipment to create an Internet-based phone service, which uses a technology known as Voice over Internet Protocol. About 40 Cisco employees will assist Community Voice Mail. In addition, the San Jose-based network equipment giant is providing office space for the organization at its Seattle campus.

In 2000, Cisco acquired voice-mail software manufacturer Active Voice, which had been supporting the non-profit group. The Active Voice employees who became Cisco workers wanted to continue that relationship, and Cisco complied, Brandon said.

“It’s a very robust grant,'’ said Michael Yutrzenka, senior manager of Cisco corporate philanthropy. “We are very excited about it.'’

At least 5 million people in the United States don’t have a phone, according to the Federal Communications Commission. And that does not include the homeless.

“When you have been laid off from your job, you have to look at whether you are going to pay the mortgage or rent, your electricity or your phone,'’ Brandon said. “The phone is the first thing to go.'’

Having a number at which a message can be left can sometimes be the crucial link between getting a job or finding affordable housing, and not, she said.

Her agency provides clients of social-service organizations around the country with their own phone number. That means a job seeker doesn’t have to give a prospective employer the number of a homeless shelter or a relative. The number does not reveal the dire economic situation the person is experiencing.

The agency, which has an annual budget of about $500,000, contains costs by developing partnerships with existing programs in 37 regions of the nation that serve the economically disadvantaged. It plans to increase that to 65 regions in four years.

Brandon said that in 2002, 50 percent of the people using her agency’s voice mail to find work found jobs; 65 percent of the homeless people using the system found housing.