Just a Phone Number

As we head into the holiday season, I wanted to write about phone numbers or, more precisely, having a phone number.

The phone number is such a mundane component of the technology we work with every day that most of us forget about it in our routine evaluations. However, to someone surviving on the edge, having a phone number can be the difference between continued misery and hope. When that person is homeless, a phone number can be the difference between trudging on in a dismal existence or getting that one break that means being able to begin working toward a meaningful and productive life.

One of my brothers (I have a bunch of them) and his wife brought this problem to my attention. Through their church, Walter and Donna have embarked on a mission to help the homeless where they live in Connecticut. Spurred by a family tragedy, they began assembling and distributing what they call "Brian Bags," in memory of Donna's late brother, to the homeless in their area.

The bags are simple though ultimately practical gifts providing essentials such as water, snacks, socks, toothpaste, deodorant, hand wipes, a gift card to a fast-food restaurant, and a basic first aid kit. They're well thought out in their simplicity, giving the homeless the things they really need along with the feeling that someone cares about them. Working from their basement, Walter and Donna have assembled and distributed more than 1,000 Brian Bags, and are now getting other members of their church involved in the project.

With the Brian Bags project going well, they're now looking at what other things they can do to help in what is truly a national tragedy. One of my nephews found their next project. Online he found a $20 flip phone that comes with a year of service and 200 minutes of use per month. This is not the type of cellular plan we're buying on a regular basis, but it has the one critical component a homeless person needs: a phone number.

What my brother and his wife have come to realize is that without a phone number, a homeless person has virtually no way of taking that first critical step out of homelessness -- getting a job. For a homeless person, looking for a job doesn't involve putting together and posting a resume to job boards. It's more a matter of knocking on doors of small businesses with Help Wanted signs posted, showing up clean, with a good attitude, and hopefully finding someone who is willing to lend a chance.

However, most employers don't hire people on the spot. Rather, they ask for a phone number. If you don't have a phone number, your first and last interview is over right then and there. You tip your hat, thank them for their time, and keep on moving to the next Help Wanted sign. Even a chance to shovel snow requires that someone can reach you on the phone.

For people who have established lives, careers, and families, "the homeless" are an uncomfortable "other." Many people simply don't understand how a person can end up in a state of homelessness. Many assume the homeless are lazy, unmotivated, or, worse still, drunks, drug addicts, and psychopaths. To be sure, many homeless people are afflicted with deep psychological problems and unchecked mental illnesses, but plenty more started out with weak hands -- limited education, little to no family support, and no credit -- that got even worse with one bad break after another. Lo and behold, they wind up on the street (or in shelters or other situations from which there is little hope of extricating themselves).

As I wrote this, I thought of '60's folk singer, Phil Ochs. Ochs, once an up-and-comer who palled around with Bob Dylan and the other Greenwich Village folkies, penned the line, "There but for fortune go you or go I," in his better years. Twelve years later, with his singing career failing and suffering from alcoholism and other maladies, Ochs took his own life at age 35 while staying in his sister's home in the depressing hamlet of Far Rockaway in Queens, NYC.

While the homeless need any number of things to get themselves back on track, without something as simple as a phone number, they're no one, and they're going nowhere.

Our business is about connecting people, but it's frightening to think about how many people are still unreachable. A phone number. It's such a small thing, but for those living on the edge, it can be the difference between a life of struggle and a chance to have a shot at what we all take for granted. So, while we settle down to an abundance of food, family, and enjoyment this holiday season, I hope you can take a moment to appreciate one of those things that's so expected in our world but can mean so much to someone surviving on the edge.

Happy Holidays.

Note: Walter and Donna are still getting things organized (Donna is doing this full time, and Walter is part time), and they are just getting started on a GoFundMe page. In the meantime, they are accepting donations through their website at www.brianoc.org (which also shows what they pack into a Brian Bag), and donation information can be found under the Contact tab.

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