VCN Street Messaging System Increases Access to Information on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

By Kesia Nagata

VCN’s Street Messaging System (SMS) is a text message based harm-reduction platform created for the use of street-involved people. The SMS alerts subscribers to weather warnings, shelter bed availability, food sources, street drug batch or overdose warnings, jobs and training opportunities, missing persons, special events, and more. Currently undergoing testing in the Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), the SMS has been designed with the intention to serve similar communities in the world with a population in need.

Judy Graves, a long time homeless advocate and outreach worker in the DTES and Toronto, enthusiastically backs the project, calling it an “innovative, practical, and empowering solution.” For decades, the distribution of resources and information has been manual: bulletin boards displaying messages, paper lists tucked into 
pockets, posters taped to walls and windows, and word of mouth warnings passed from individual to individual. If not lost or destroyed, these messages become outdated quickly, lacking impact. Resources are more up-to-date and centralized through efforts by PovNet, the Carnegie Centre Newsletter or BC211. The latter maintains an impressive database of BC community, government, and social services, located online or by calling in. This process of obtaining information, however requires action, initiative, and access that many individuals cannot attain.

The SMS serves a different purpose: it alerts recipients in real-time to currently relevant updates in their immediate community, and beyond a one-time sign up, requires no action on the part of the recipient. Cell phone use in the DTES is on the upswing, and texting proves to be a relatively intuitive, easy-to-use, and affordable method of communication for most people surveyed. VCN’s SMS has great potential to instantly reach large numbers of people in need.
The street outreach team members, including myself, have been introducing and signing up a diverse range of vulnerable people, including those who are homeless, living in shelters or subsidized housing, or supported by welfare or disability payments.The current focus of the SMS encompasses people who live in the Downtown Eastside and depend on social services and resources for survival. In an environment of constant flux and uncertainty, maintaining control over a constant is a priority.Commonly-held beliefs among the general public include the myth that low-income and homeless people do not use or own cell phones, yet more than half the people interviewed on the streets, at drop-in centres, free clinics, and shelters report owning and using cell phones. Cell phones play a valuable role in keeping people informed and connected with their community, and is a much more achievable commitment than paying rent. Amongst the street-involved people we surveyed, most pay over $20 per month, and many report monthly bills of $50 – $120 for unlimited service and data plans. Telecommunications companies are increasingly accepting cash payments, increasing access for street-involved people who may not have credit cards. Many street-involve people use their welfare or disability cheques to pay for their phone service.


The support and feedback from social service providers attest to the necessity and effectiveness of the platform. The SMS project has the power to make great impact in one of Canada’s poorest postal codes, as well as similar communities worldwide. I am excited to see how the SMS project unfolds during the research and development phase underway in Vancouver. VCN’s Street Messaging System (SMS) is a text message based harm-reduction platform created for the use of street-involved people. The SMS alerts subscribers to weather warnings, shelter bed availability, food sources, street drug batch or overdose warnings, jobs and training opportunities, missing persons, special events, and more. Currently undergoing testing in the Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), the SMS has been designed with the intention to serve similar communities worldwide. I am excited to see how the SMS project unfolds during the research and development phase underway in Vancouver.

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