2-1-1 puts social services just a phone call away
If the number 2-1-1 rings a bell, that may be because the efforts of two local human service organizations are working.
The three-digit telephone number — used throughout the country as a source for a wide variety of community resources and information — made its debut in Indiana County earlier this year. Its entry was spearheaded by the United Way of Indiana County and Indiana County Department of Human Services.
The system went live in late February. Since then, 354 residents have called the free and confidential 24-hour hotline, according to Maureen Pounds, assistant director at the Indiana County Department of Human Services.
Those callers join 82 percent of U.S. residents in 48 states who have access to the system, based on information from the PA 2-1-1 Southwest website.
Indiana is one of 11 counties that make up PA 2-1-1 Southwest. Headquartered in Butler, the call center is part of Pennsylvania’s expanding 2-1-1 network.
“It’s not statewide yet, but I’m pretty sure our region is covered now,” said Susan Sapko, executive director of the United Way of Indiana County.
Sapko, who has worked with 2-1-1 at other United Way programs in the eastern United States, describes the number as a “valuable resource.”
“2-1-1 will give referrals to different agencies. It’s not just for people in a crisis,” she said, adding that it could even be used if someone needed help finding a summer camp for their child.
The program has information on about 100 organizations and services in Indiana County, as well as regional and state resources that are available to residents.
Those at the Indiana County Department of the Human Services made their database of resources available for the 2-1-1 program. They also continue to maintain the database.
Calls have increased steadily over the past six months, Pounds said.
“The word’s getting out there, and people are utilizing it from all over the county,” she said.
During May and June, 182 calls came in, receiving nearly 600 referrals, up from about 10 calls in one month at the program’s start. Multiple referrals are often given to a single caller.
For example, if a person needs to find out how to get help paying the electric bill, the resource navigator — a specially trained operator who has access to a database of county and regional resources — may seek other ways to help, too.
“They’re looking at all their needs when they’re talking to them,” Pounds said. “They’re not just answering that one question and that’s it.”
Callers aren’t the only ones receiving assistance from the system. Social service agencies through the county benefit, as well, according to Terri Dominick, resource development coordinator at the United Way.
“They know there are people out there that don’t know how to get to them,” she said.
To provide enough information to get the word out about all available programs and services, Dominick said, organizations would have to bombard residents with information.
In addition, the cost of running a 24-hour call center with access to so many resources would far exceed the $10,000 that the United Way contributes each year to the program.
The annual fee not only goes toward the costs of running the regional call center, but it also provides promotional materials for Indiana County’s efforts.
In 2013, UPMC gave the United Way $5,000 in matching funds for the first year of Indiana’s program. If 2-1-1 proves successful, then in 2014 and 2015 the United Way will put the full $10,000 toward the program, Sapko said.
After that, it’s up to the organization’s board to decide whether to continue with the funding.
If United Way board members decide not to continue with funding after three years, but 2-1-1 proves to “work and be a valuable resource,” the United Way will try to help find another source to support the program, she said.
The easy-to-remember number connects callers with live operators who have access to a wide variety of human service information. Some examples:
• Unemployment assistance
• Insurance benefits
• Housing assistance
• Help paying utilities
• Child care options
• Support groups
For more information: www.pa211sw.org