Funding cuts threaten voicemail access for low-income people

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On Friday August 12, Open Access Connections (OAC), formerly known as Twin Cities Community Voice Mail, laid off its staff in an effort to keep its free voice mailbox service operational. OAC operates a telephone voice mail access system and purchases telephone lines ($15,000 worth, stated OAC staff member Ed Petsche) to provide voice mail accounts to people in need.

OAC’s telephone message access allows its participants to receive notice of family emergencies, confirmation of medical appointments, status reports concerning Veterans Administration or Social Security benefits, follow-up messages on potential employment and housing opportunities, and also allows domestic violence victims private voice mail access for protective measures.  Petsche stated that about 5,500 participants rely on this program each year.

Earlier this month, the Minnesota Department of Human Services notified OAC it was cutting its funding grant of $37,000.  Ed Petsche, OAC’s Community Organizer/Community Outreach Specialist and one of two full-time and three part-time staffers who were laid off, stated that this loss, 14 percent of the organization’s annual budget of just over $200,000, is devastating, and is an especially significant loss when combined with diminished foundation support.

With access to communication at its core, OAC is also developing programs to provide internet access for very low income people in the form of group computer, email/net training, a net book lending library and is hoping to establish an internet café center sometime in the near future.

OAC’s website lists partner agencies, and a GiveMN button for donations.

Contact information:
Open Access Connections
1821 University Avenue #N-184
St. Paul, MN 55104
Phone: 651-643-0883
openaccess@openaccessconnections.org

Mike Menner, Chairperson of OAC’s Board of Directors, confirmed that OAC no longer has staff available in Midway St. Paul office to field questions, add users and train staff of agencies that are the front line of OAC’s voicemail service.

OAC, a non-profit agency, was established in 1994 to provide free private telephone voice mail accounts to persons without telephone message access, and is the second oldest and the largest voice mail program in the United States. Petsche stated that this is the first time in its 17 years of operation that the State of Minnesota has not provided significant funding for OAC.

OAC staff members train the staff of social service and government agencies they partner with to identify people in need and how to activate voice mail numbers and retrieve messages.  These agencies distribute the voice mail numbers to people who need this service.   OAC initially provided its voice mail account services to the metro area but now partners with 350 agencies throughout Minnesota.

Petsche said the general public is unaware of the need for voice mail access by people with no resources to have voice mail access: “They are not on our radar screen.”  He added that, “This is an important part of their identity – they have some control.  We need the public to realize the indignity of no [voice mail] access.”  Recent comments by OAC participants, published on its website, echo these sentiments:

“Since voice mail I have been called for job interviews and I now have housing because of voice mail.  I couldn’t afford to keep a cell phone.  Because of voice mail and having a way for the landlord to reach me is how I got housing.  Since I am employed now and still have a little trouble paying my bills, when I can’t pay the cell phone bill I have voice mail to help me.  You can use your voice mail number for your resume.  I appreciate your service and hope you are able to continue to allow him to use our service.”

“Voice mail means a great deal, being able to have people get hold of me is important.  It is a great help for me as a VET.  I can’t afford a phone.  This has been a great help to me as a VET.  Hope you get the funding.”

“I have used voice mail 3 – 4 years.  It has helped me to get employed and when I was laid-off.  It helped when I needed a number for my resume.  I don’t know what I could have done if I didn’t have this voice mail number.  Hope you continue.”

OAC actively pursues funding sources for its programs through agencies, grant application, foundations and personal donation.  Petsche stated OAC will focus on funding its primary voice mail access program for a few more months.

Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Collaborative.