Free voice mail service is threatened by grant cut

Open Access Connections, which provides free voice mail for people with disabilities, low income people and the homeless, has been forced to lay off staff and scale back services in the wake of a state funding cut.

The nonprofit agency, which is based in St. Paul, laid off its staff Aug. 12. Two full-time and three part-time employees lost their jobs.

The layoffs are an attempt to continue to provide the voice mail service. The action was forced by the elimination of a $37,000 state grant during this summer’s special legislative session. 

That presents about 14 percent of Open Access Connections’ annual budget. The agency has received state funding since opening its doors in 1994. The loss of the state dollars, coupled with dwindling foundation support, has alarmed supporters of the organization.

The state funding was cut with no notice, Open Access Connections leaders said.

“Without this funding, we face closing our office, turning off our voice mail sys-tem, and leaving 2,200 vulnerable people without communications services.”

Agency officials state that they have a modest office, with no fancy equipment. “The only thing exotic is our phone bill.”

Open Access Connections was originally known as Twin Cities Community Voice Mail. The agency was founded by the late Greg Horan, a formerly homeless man who became an advocate for others. The voice mail service is a crucial resource for people without phones who are actively looking for work and housing, along with those trying to stay in touch with doctors and family members. Over the years the agency has connected about 60,000 clients with a free voice mail number.

Open Access Connections staff did many things for their clients, from helping them communicate to gathering mittens and hats for them in the winter. The staff also trained the staff of social service and government agencies 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 service.

Open Access Connections clients rely on the voice mail for many services, including call back numbers for employers on job applications, for landlords as they seek housing, for keeping connected with their medical care providers or freedom from domestic abuse. No other agency in the state provides a similar service.

The agency staff had discussed providing other services, including 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 an internet café center. But all of those ideas are on hold.

Open Access Connections has partnered with 350 community agencies and organizations includ-ing Catholic Charities, Tubman Family Alliance, Salvation Army, Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans, and YouthLink. About 5,500 people use the service each year.

The state grant, from the Department of Human Services Office of Economic Opportunity, has been provided since the agency began in 1994. In a statement, Open Access Connections said,” We understand that cuts are being made everywhere in government, but this cut is pennywise and pound foolish. We save federal, state and local governments funds by helping people get off public assistance and out of shelters more quickly.”

State officials note that Open Access Connections’ most recent contract expired June 30. The agency and many others went into a competitive request for proposals process for two-year contracts after that date. Total state and federal funds available for shelter programs and services from the Department of Human Services is $3 million for the 2012-2013 biennium. This funding is for the entire state and is less than the funding that was available during the 2010-11 biennium because one-time federal stimulus funding for homeless prevention and rapid re-housing ended. The demand and requests for funding far exceeded resources available.

Open Access Connections was eligible for the state portion of the above funds only, because the proposal did not meet federal guidelines. The State portion of funds available for shelter programming is $344,000 annually. The agency was in competition with organizations providing direct shelter for families, veterans and youth. With significant increase in demand for shelter and limited funding, DHS prioritized funding to homeless shelters for 2012-2013.

Open Access Connections is raising funds through its website, at www.openaccessconnections.org

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