Saturday, Jan. 5, 2008 | midnight
UNLV senior Kristen Ruby got an A for a video she made in her fall semester digital storytelling course -- and uncovered a technological glitch that may have kept hundreds of poor people in the Las Vegas Valley from getting into a federally subsidized housing program.
The video, titled “Embarq's Ridiculous Customer Service,” is anchored by nearly 10 minutes of audio from a taped phone conversation between Don Cervellini, Ruby's boyfriend, and two employees of the telephone company. It also includes snarky text such as “That was a very sincere and heart-warming apology.”
The call and the text refer to a problem that began at 5:30 a.m. Nov. 14, when Ruby and Cervellini's phone began ringing every two minutes or so, with callers asking about Clark County Housing Authority's Section 8 vouchers.
The couple's phone number was one digit different from a number that Embarq gave the housing authority to handle a three-day lottery of the vouchers. Apparently, because of a technical problem, some of the calls were being routed from the agency to the apartment.
Vicki Soares, spokeswoman for Embarq, said she could not comment because any information would be proprietary. “I'm sure the company is already investigating this,” she said.
Callers were hoping to be among 3,000 people the housing authority would put on a waiting list for the Section 8 voucher program, which covers most or all of a household's rent, depending on income. Tens of thousands seek to get on the lists every time the three local housing authorities open them up because the vouchers are one of the few solutions to the valley's affordable housing shortage.
But some callers that early morning weren't getting through to the housing authority, which had not opened its phone lines to create a waiting list for the program since mid-2006.
“At first, we thought it was a joke,” Ruby recalled. “We said, ‘No, we're not Section 8.' Finally, after people kept calling, we asked, ‘What number are you trying to reach?'”
During the next five hours or so, about 100 people called. So Cervellini began calling Embarq and the Clark County Housing Authority. Cervellini taped the calls to the phone company. Some time after 10 a.m., the couple turned off their phone and left the answering machine connected.
During the next three days, neither Embarq nor the public agency could fix the problem.
The video grinds through the excruciating details of the couple's contact with Embarq, including one tragicomic sequence in which it appears the company tried to send a technician to their house, but couldn't get through on the phone to gain access to the couple's gated community.
At the end of the video, Cervellini notes that the couple no longer gets phone service from Embarq.
As for the Section 8 callers, Ruby said 64 people left messages on their machine from Wednesday to Friday. Most of the messages included names, addresses and phone numbers. Some also left Social Security numbers. It is impossible to know how many people hung up after getting the answering machine.
Nancy Wesoff, executive director of the housing authority, was not aware of the incident. “I've never had this happen in 26 years of working in this business,” she said.
The only problem Wesoff heard about, she said, occurred during the first 45 minutes, when nearly 45,000 calls were made, basically jamming the system. “The amount of calls got too big,” she said.
Wesoff said Embarq “had to do some sort of programming” to correct that problem, restoring the flow of calls. The agency had rotating shifts of six answering the phones 12 hours a day from Wednesday to Friday.
She said she never got word of the couple's calls to the agency. “It's unfortunate,” she said. “We sure would have liked to have known about it so we could have addressed it.”
Ruby said the experience left her thinking more about others than herself.
“We weren't affected so much,” she said. “What about all these people that were trying to get through to Section 8? ... These people didn't have a chance to get in the lottery.”
Timothy Pratt can be reached at (702) 259-8828 or at [email protected]