2-1-1 helpline sees continued growth
There’s always someone out there you’re not reaching when it comes to 2-1-1, the human services assistance number, according to Maureen Pounds, assistant director of the Indiana County Department of Human Services.
But that doesn’t mean that the number — designed to provide information for non-emergency social service matters — isn’t making the connection one year into its debut in Indiana County.
“We’ve had people call in from Cherry Tree and Glen Campbell, over to Shelocta, Smicksburg, over to Saltsburg,” Pounds said. “I think we’re hitting the areas. We just have to get folks we haven’t hit yet. We have to reach more.”
The number is designed to connect callers with operators who provide information on resources for human services assistance, such as crisis intervention, help with housing and food pantry locations.
The 2-1-1 system provides live operators called resource navigators 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The systems — which, as in Indiana County, are often supported by the United Way — are currently active in all 50 states as well as Washington, D.C.; Puerto Rico; and Canada, according to information from the national 2-1-1 effort website, www.211us.org.
Those behind the local endeavor, specifically the Department of Human Services and Indiana County United Way, plan to continue outreach efforts.
“Awareness is growing, that’s really our big push this year, to educate the public and the agencies,” said Susan Sapko, executive director of Indiana County United Way.
Over the past 12 months, organizers have relied both on new technology, such as social media, and tried-and-true methods for outreach, according to Pounds.
Fire companies in rural areas have been receptive to using their halls as gathering places for public presentations. Spreading the word through Facebook and a newsletter with a mailing list of 1,000 names has proved effective, too, she said.
“A lot of people say, ‘Gosh, I never knew there was anything like this,’” Pounds said. “They’ve been quite pleased any time I’ve gone out and spoken … to find that there’s some coordination and ways to help. I think it’s been received positively.”
When the non-emergency number rolled out last January in Indiana County, five callers dialed up the first month. By March, those calling to seek assistance totaled nearly 100, with 84 of the calls coming in that month alone. Statistics from the Department of Human Resources show that since then, calls have consistently exceeded 70 per month, breaking 100 in May and August.
Calls mirror other regions
According to those behind PA 2-1-1 Southwest, the regional network that Indiana County is a part of, the number of calls in the county has grown at a pace comparable to other efforts in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Anne Fogoros, PA 2-1-1 Southwest operations director, said she is pleased with Indiana County’s progress. She credits an existing network of agencies with helping to meet callers’ needs.
In addition, she said, the needs being met here align with those in other areas.
“We find that the calls we’re getting from Indiana County mirror the calls for help from across southwestern Pennsylvania,” Fogoros said. “People are finding themselves in situations where they’re losing jobs or their hours are being cut and the reduced income in the household is leading them to not be able to pay the rent (or) to scaling back, so they’re appreciative knowing that there is help, especially at this time of year.”
The county’s human service agencies, Fogoros said, have helped 2-1-1 resource navigators stay prepared for Indiana callers.
“They work very hard to make sure people in Indiana have services — it’s a very strong partnership,” she said.
In turn, the 2-1-1 call centers in Butler and Pittsburgh keep social service agencies posted on what callers need.
“We give information back to Indiana United Way and the Department of Human Services so everyone knows what people are calling us about,” Fogoros said.
With that information, those in social service agencies can determine whether services need to be further developed and whether resource navigators are making the best possible referrals.
“They use the information for planning,” she said. “They use it to monitor what 2-1-1’s doing and how it’s performing, because we want to provide the best possible service.”
Quantity and quality
For Sapko, 2-1-1’s effectiveness, in a sense, is not just about quantity, but quality.
With 2-1-1, she said, “we’re not just giving a referral to a caller, but seeing whether the caller actually is using the information.”
That means working with human service agencies to find out if they can collect information about the origins of referrals. Doing so, she said, will allow the United Way and human service agencies to learn more about the reach of 2-1-1 throughout the county.
“We like to be transparent,” Fogoros said. “We want everyone to know when you call 2-1-1, you’re getting the referrals that the home community would make themselves.”
PA 2-1-1 Southwest, she said, trains staff about the services in each of its counties and also invites agencies from those locations to talk to the Southwest team.
“So they use the information for planning. They use it to monitor what 2-1-1’s doing and how it’s performing because we want to provide the best possible service.”
Local 2-1-1 organizers will meet with human services in the coming months to find out what they can about how 2-1-1 callers follow through on referrals they receive, Sapko said.
Numbers from the department of human services indicate that resource navigators made more than 3,300 referrals in 2013 to Indiana County callers.
While the number may seem high next to the 800-plus Indiana County calls received this year, the reason is simple: 2-1-1 resource navigators often make multiple referrals to a single caller. Callers, Fogoros said, often need help learning to navigate the social services system. Many times they have multiple needs — for instance, if someone calls because they can’t pay their gas bill, they may also need help with rent or food.
“A lot of what (resource navigators) are doing is helping people to get through the maze and to kind of back them up, find out where that person had reached and what stumbling blocks they face,” she said.
In coming months, United Way will review the progress of 2-1-1 in Indiana County.
Last year, the agency agreed to support the 2-1-1 effort for three years, given that it is successful.
In 2013, UPMC provided United Way with a $5,000 matching grant that helped cover the costs of a 2-1-1 presence in the county.
Chances are the United Way’s board of directors will put the full $10,000 toward the program in 2014 and 2015.
“We’ll have to review and decide whether to move forward on it,” Sapko said. “I don’t see any issues right now, but we still have to do a full review.
“Basically, we have a commitment for three years, as long as it’s a successful program.”
The decision will likely be made by March 31, the end of United Way’s current fiscal year.
2-1-1 by the numbers
January – 5
February – 9
March – 84
April – 74
May – 102
June – 80
July – 77
August – 103
September – 86
October – 73
November – 73
December – 73
Total – 839 (12 months)
Needs addressed – 1,098
Number of referrals – 3,306
Top needs addressed
• Rental assistance
Top agency referrals
• Indiana County Community Action Program (ICCAP)
• Salvation Army
• Catholic Charities
• Assistance Office
• Aging Services
Information courtesy of Indiana County Department of Human Services
If you would like to schedule a presentation on 2-1-1 (for social groups and agencies), contact Maureen Pounds, Assistant Director, Indiana County Department of Human Services at (724) 463-8207, ext. 17, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.