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With power comes responsibility.

Or at least that is what Google would like us to think.

Don’t get me wrong – I applaud Google’s announcement that they are partnering with the city of San Francisco to provide the homeless with free voicemail and a lifelong telephone number. And even if the feelgood move is little more than a PR stunt (and I’m using that term loosely) to make Google seem more friendly in the eyes of the public, which as of late has become increasingly aware of Google’s ability to screw them by sharing information without their consent, I believe any organizations who poll resources for the greater good are doing something right.


The free voicemail offering for SF’s homeless community arrives thanks to an innovative partnership between Project Homeless Connect and Project CARE (Communications and Respect for Everyone), the non-profit initiative of GrandCentral Communications, which Google acquired last summer. What’s the plan? GrandCentral will host the technology, and Project Homeless Connect will work to raise awareness of the program in the homeless community and get people to sign-up.

“We’re firm believers in the power of technology to improve the daily lives of individuals and communities as a whole, and we recognize that access to phone and voicemail services is one way that Google can help San Francisco’s homeless stay connected with family, friends, social workers, health care providers, and potential employers.” – Craig Walker, Senior Project Manager, Google (http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2008/02/project-care-in-san-francisco.html)

In theory, once a homeless person signs-up for the free voicemail and phone number, he or she will have a better chance at success. And while a phone number and voicemail service would certainly make it easier for a person to connect with the outside world, simply throwing freebies out there is no where near a real solution.

It is this short-sightedness in their approach which makes Google’s goodwill offering smack of an ulterior motive. That and the fact that Project Care’s free voicemail offering is nothing new, yet was still announced today with much fanfare.

Still, for the purposes of this blog, let us assume that the offering is new, or at least that the fanfare surrounding the announcement today in San Francisco is to promote awareness of the program, and focus on the “facts” as presented in today’s article on MSNBC online, which outlines several things a homeless person can do with a free phone number and voicemail service:

– Leave a callback number on a resume or job application
– Get test results from clinics and health care personnel
– Receive voice messages from family and friends
– Keep in contact with social workers

Wonderful. But what happens when a homeless person gets a callback from a prospective employer? How does he or she call back? Do the numbers also carry free long distance service? How about a local calling plan?

Where does the person get a suit to wear to the imaginary job interview, and how does one learn of the job interview in the first place? Must one have a temporary place of residence where he or she can shower and sleep before even attempting to find a job? What about food? Who feeds these people while they are on the hunt for a new job?

Come on, Google. I agree that providing SF’s homeless community with a free voicemail and phone number is nice. It’s thoughtful. And maybe while GrandCentral hosts the technology at no charge, Project Homeless Connect is not only raising awareness for the program, they are also taking care of the laundry list of things a homeless person needs before using one the free voicemail service to try and find a job is even a remote possibility. Maybe.

But when you take the freebie out of context and paint it as a singular solution to a murky problem, it makes you look callous. It makes you look cold. It makes you look evil.

And it makes the whole thing look like a PR stunt gone awry.


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