Helping Hands: If not 9-1-1, who you gonna call?
December 19, 2012
Everyone knows that if you have an emergency, you call 9-1-1, and if you need basic information such as addresses or phone numbers of local businesses, you call 4-1-1. But many don’t know who to call about rental assistance, health questions or available community services. That number is 2-1-1.
The 2-1-1 call center is a nationwide information referral line to health and human services. In Colorado, it partners closely with United Way and assistance is provided statewide. Colorado is divided in to seven different regions supported by six call centers. The call center at Mile High United Way in Denver supports 11 surrounding counties, including Summit.
The 2-1-1 call center program was launched in 1997 with United Way in Atlanta. It reached Colorado in 2003 with the start of three call centers. In the beginning the Colorado call centers were only open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. but the demand rose and now the line is open for 24 hours, seven days a week. More than 260,000 calls came in throughout 2011, 151,00 of which contacted the Mile High call center in Denver.
“You can dial any time and become connected to somebody,” said Fermin Avila, the 2-1-1 operations manager for Mile High United Way.
Although the operator answering a call placed from Summit County is based in Denver, they are able to provide accurate local information thanks to 2-1-1’s extensive database. No matter where a caller is phoning from, their information is filtered through the same database, which lists more than 11,000 services statewide, 4,500 of which are in the Denver metro area. Each region is responsible for maintaining and updating the information in its area. To do this, resource teams make calls and do research to ensure that the information on file is up to date.
People in Summit County needing health and human service information have two resources – the 2-1-1 call center and the Summit County Cares website. The website also has a large database with relevant local information for anything from basic needs to youth clubs and parenting resources and more. Both the call center and the website offer services in English and Spanish.
“Somebody can dial 2-1-1 any time they want for community services such as rent assistance, utility assistance, where to get food,” said Avila. “A trained referral specialist can help direct you to whatever you’re looking for.”
The goal of the call center is to connect people in need with the community, health or social services available to aid them, Avila said. The largest percentage of those calls request rent assistance ranging from financial resources to legal questions regarding tenants’ rights. In November, 25 percent of callers requested rent assistance.
“It’s a one-stop shop,” said Avila. “By dialing 2-1-1, you tell us what you need, we find that resource and we can also find additional resources that you might be able to use.”
The number of calls tend to increase during the winter seasons when people more urgently need utility or shelter assistance, Avila said. Numbers also rise in the spring time, when 2-1-1 helps families with moderate to low incomes with free tax assistance, thus freeing up more money for food, clothing and child services.
Another important function 2-1-1 serves is as an information center during a disaster. A recent example is the summer wildfires, when residents could call 2-1-1 for news about which areas were being called to evacuate, where to go if they did need to leave their homes and where to find shelter, food and other assistance.
All call center staff go through extensive training to be prepared for whatever a caller may need, be it information from the database, a referral to a suicide hotline or to be connected with emergency services.
Not all those calling in to 2-1-1 are in need. A certain percentage of calls are volunteers wanting to help, particularly during times of natural disasters, such as fires. During times of high call volume, the call center will be staffed with volunteers as well as regular employees.
When someone calls 2-1-1, they are asked to answer a list of questions that can best determine what type of resource will help them. The United Way uses the information gathered from the calls and from talking with various community resources to compile data related to needs throughout the state. Monthly and yearly reports go out to Colorado communities detailing areas of highest need, which can be a valuable resource for deciding where to distribute funds to best serve the populace.
Ultimately, said Avila, it’s important that people know that a resource like 2-1-1 exists.
“We’re trying to let people know about 2-1-1,” he said. “If they need to use it, for whatever reason, they can just pick up the phone and dial three digits to get connected with someone.”