Google’s Good Example

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Back in February 2008, Google made an announcement that could help hundreds of homeless people in San Francisco get back on their feet. Every single homeless person in the city would be given a life-long phone number and voicemail, should they choose to accept it. Google partnered with the city of San Francisco to provide the service to homeless individuals and to shelters so they can distribute the numbers to their clients. It worked so well (there were thousands of signups), they did it twice.

How did this work? The move by the city and the company allowed a homeless person to call in for his or her messages from any phone. Having this number would enable someone to reconnect with their loved ones, see a doctor, or fill out a job application, which asks for a call back number. The cost is nothing, and the messages can be retrieved from any phone. The users were able to leave personal greetings, and the numbers are theirs forever. That way, there’s no humiliation attached, nothing that says they’re homeless; it appears like any other voicemail—perhaps making them more likely to find work, and improving their morale by reconnecting with society.

Some people dismissed this as marketing hype, and criticized it for taking credit from other smaller companies who’ve done it before—like a Seattle nonprofit organization called Community Voice Mail, who offers similar services nationwide to homeless people, disaster victims, and others in need. However, those companies don’t have the cultural relevancy Google has, and Google knows it. What’s notable and bold in its strategy is that they gave the homeless free access to a free service, one that’s already been accessible to them by other, smaller companies for years.

This is an extraordinary example of how designers can use their eclectic minds to empower the community that we live in.

For those of us who live in New York City and San Francisco, we’re confronted by the homeless issue every day—more than 39,000 people, including 16,500 children, sleep in NYC municipal shelters every night. The city attributes most of the rise in homelessness to the economy. How are they solving this problem? Not well. The Bloomberg administration, which has struggled with the homelessness problem for years, has paid for more than 600 families to leave the city since 2007.

Since the economic downturn, many people have found themselves in unexpected situations. Help seems far away, so far that a free voicemail might seem like empty rhetoric. You can’t get work when there’s none available.

When I walk past a person who’s asking for money, many questions and concerns arise: Do I help another human being who’s in need? Am I helping out of altruism or is it self-guilt? Do they “deserve” it? Will they use it for drugs or alcohol? I think we all come across this difficulty. My dear friend, Aaron, never gives money, but instead buys them a meal at the nearest café or fast food joint. I admire his courage and goodwill. To think of how many times I don’t do anything brings me a feeling of bewilderment.

But how can we help? At COLLINS:, we talked a lot about the idea that “everyone is a designer,” that design can be used as a tool for how we structure, help, and inform the world around us—and that anybody and everybody can attribute to this. We can’t all be Google, but there are things that all of us, myself included, can do to make a small difference. Therefore, here are some quick ways we can help the homeless with small acts:

1. Donate items for the homeless. Set aside used clothing, and toys. You can donate bags of groceries, and personal items such as new toothbrushes and toothpaste, too.

2. Work at a shelter. You can help feed the homeless year-round, whenever it’s possible. Also, ministries usually can’t afford to hire enough staff, so they are dependent on volunteers for help.

3. Use your talents. Lawyers can provide free legal help. Medical and dental services can be offered to the homeless by doctors and dentists. If you are a teacher, you can offer tutoring.

4. Support policies that support homeless persons. You can advocate for more affordable housing for low-income workers and for facilities in your community.

5. Educate others. Whether you’re letting others know about a shelter, what they can do to help, your knowledge can convince others to help.

6. Don’t make assumptions. The homeless person may be a woman fleeing a domestic violence situation, or someone who’s working but unable to make enough to pay the rent.

How else can we help? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas around this issue.