This page is part of the Peace Heathens' Seattle Crisis Resource Directory.
This page is provides a list of inexpensive resources for sending and receiving messages. The primary focus is on resources useful to those who lack a fixed abode or are short on money, and do not have the option of an ordinary phone line and mail delivery. Many of these resources are equally useful to other people as well.
Thanks to Wes Browning of Real Change, Seattle's monthly "homeless paper" for first getting us to think about this issue. We have plagiarized shamelessly from his magnificent 1997 article, "The Survival Guide You Hope You'll Never Need".
P.O. boxes are much cheaper than commercial mailboxes but can't be used as legal addresses for some purposes. Cheaper still (free) is to tell everyone on your mailing list to write you General Delivery at your local Post Office. You'll get your mail but no credit for having an address at all. You won't be able to get Food Stamps, register to vote, get GAU or social security benefits, new ID when old expires, or even a library card.
If you are seeking work, a P.O. box or commercial mailbox looks a lot better than General Delivery.
Telephone and Telephone Messages
If you are receiving assistance from pretty much any DSHS program—General Assistance, SSI, TANF, DSHS Chore Services, etc.— you are likely to be eligible for the Washington Telephone Assistance Program, which will give you a discount on a home phone line and local telephone service. For information on this service in the Seattle area, call the telephone company CenturyLink at 1-800-244-1111.
Otherwise, don't overlook the possibility that some friend may be willing to function temporarily as your phone number and have you check in once a day for messages. The only cost is the "social cost" of asking for a favor.
Otherwise, there are a variety of phone message options. You can subscribe to message services providing voice-mail that cost about the same as basic home service. Or you can rent a pager. When considering a pager, add in the cost of replying to frivolous calls from pay phones. The pager will be more expensive but worth it if it can snag income. Weigh the chances.
If you are seeking work, voice mail (with or without a pager) is pretty much indistinguishable from an answering machine; this last few years, voice mail has been winning out over answering machines even for many people who can choose freely between the two, so it won't give anyone a clue that you might be homeless.
If you are homeless and working with a social services agency, you are probably eligible for free Community Voice Mail, a program of the Solid Ground (Verified 05/2012). Others who have no telephone service may also qualify for an inexpensive private CVM voice mail number ($4 per month or $10 for 3 months). Call 206-694-6771 for more information.
Laser Voice Mail (206-376-1000) provides free voice mail, but you have to listen to advertising while waiting to access your account.
A more recent program, the Lifeline Phone from Virgin/Assurance Wireless, provides eligible users with a free cell phone and 250 free usage minutes per month. Most recipients of public assitance, and some other people with low incomes are eligible (Verified 05/2012).
"Plain vanilla" commercial voice mail service costs around $12-$15 a month, including 24-hour access to your messages -- there are a handful of local services advertising low rates in the Yellow Pages under "Voice Mail." If you're not paying by credit card, most require several months' prepayment. Some also want to check your credit.
Basic numeric pagers can be purchased for about $50-$75 or can be rented for a few bucks a month. Some paging businesses include a few months' service in the cost of the pager. Ongoing monthly charges vary depending on whether you include voice-mail and/or other services such as the ability to receive text and/or e-mail messages; the range is $8-$20/month. "Activation fees" also apply in many cases. Credit approval can be an obstacle with some providers; with others it's not an issue. Check the Yellow Pages under "Paging Equipment & Service" or visit one of many pager/cell phone stores that have sprouted up in the downtown area. Smaller local companies seem to offer the best deals (Qwest requires that you already have residential service with them).
If you're looking for a cell phone, beware what's being advertised: low per-minute rates or "free airtime" can come with hidden costs if you exceed the maximums advertised. Cell phones can get expensive quickly if they're your only method of communication and you use them frequently.
If you have some money, but lack credit, you might want to consider pre-paid cellular. Typically, you purchase a phone for $70-100, then you purchase blocks of minutes. Several of these services offer voice mail as an option. Tracfone, AT&T wireless, T-Mobile, Cingular, Verizon wireless and Voicestream all offer pre-paid services. See http://www.nocreditcheckoffers.com/cellphone for more information.
Email and Internet access
All you need to access e-mail is a Seattle Public Library card and access to the library: this allows you 90 minutes a day online with a very nice graphics terminal. You don't need any account to access the Internet from the public library, just a library card. If you do not have a library card, a one-day guest pass may be issued. Consult your librarian.
The downtown Seattle Public Library has computers for Internet access throughout the building. A reservation may be made in person for that day, or if a computer is free, immediate use is available. The Library also offers free classes for people new to using e-mail and the Internet; call 206-386-4636 for information or pick up a monthly schedule at any library. The Library also maintains a list of other places where Internet access is available.
For those who lack a computer of their own (or who move around a lot) the most useful type of email is "web-based email," which keeps all your mail on a computer "somewhere out there." You can check your incoming messages and send mail from any terminal or computer that is connected to the Internet. Many of these services are very easy to sign up for instantly on line. Typically, they place a small self-promotional ad on the bottom of each email you send, but they are otherwise genuinely free.
Popular web-based email sites include Yahoo Mail or MSN's Hotmail. Some of the previously free email services are beginning to charge fees. Several websites list the still-free e-mail services and keep you up to date on which ones are beginning to charge or have closed. See the following for more information:
Seattle Community Network (SCN) was a pioneer in free email accounts, and is still a reasonable source of this service. SCN mail is totally free, contains no ads, and you can access it even from a terminal set up with a text-only interface. Unfortunately, SCN does not offer instant sign-up: you must apply for SCN e-mail accounts by US mail (application forms are available at any Seattle Public Library).
SCN maintains a page about public places in Seattle to access the Internet, some of them (such as libraries) providing free access.
For a good national list of sites offering free or cheap Internet access, see ConnectNet. You give them your ZIP code, they let you know what's nearby; around here it will mostly be the public libraries. They have a toll-free phone number, too: 866-583-1234.
If you have a computer and a telephone line, remarkably there is such a thing as free dial-up Internet access that supports a graphical web interface. One such option that we've heard generally good things about is NoCharge.com. They have quite a few access numbers in the Puget Sound area. All-free-isp.com lists a few other free dial-up services, and attempts to keep track of all such services in the United States.
If you do not have money to buy a computer, and can make a good case why one would be significantly helpful to you, contact The Computer Bank Charity, 206-214-7779 (Saturdays) or firstname.lastname@example.org. They have a limited number of machines to give away, but will consider worthy cases. (By the way, they are seeking donations of Pentium computers and VGA or better monitors. Verified 2/04)
Bi-weekly evening computer classes for beginners: Introduction to Microsoft Word and Windows Essentials for seniors, students, etc. Fee normally $10 for series of four classes; some scholarships available. Call for further information.
Free computer tutoring Monday & Tuesday 3-5 pm. Also, free open computer lab for writing resumes, Thursday & Friday 3-5pm only.
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The master of this page is http://www.scn.org/crisis/communications.html.