TAKE 5: Dial 2-1-1 for information and referral service

Feb. 16, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

This week, we Take 5 with Jan Hayes, the executive director of The United Way of Lee County, about the “2-1-1” information telephone line, which provides a gateway for finding community health and human service resources.

This past week, National 2-1-1 Awareness Day was observed. For those who aren’t familiar with the 2-1-1 service, can you provide some background about its history and relationship with the United Way?

Nonprofits have always struggled with how to get people the help they need. In every community, including ours, there are a lot of outstanding groups providing everything from emergency shelter and food to legal advice and tutoring. The problem for people needing help was where do you call? And that was especially true if you need help in the middle of the night or on weekends.

The idea for 2-1-1 came from those other special phone numbers. You can call 9-1-1 for an emergency and 4-1-1 for directory assistance. So, what about a number where people can get free information and referrals at any time, day or night?

About 12 years ago, the United Way and some partners convinced the Federal Communications Commission to designate “2-1-1” as a national phone number for community information and referral services.

The United Way of North Carolina was part of that initial effort and quickly set up a service in our state. Since then, organizations coordinating the service for counties across the state have been signing up to participate. Our United Way, which represents Lee County, joined about five years ago.

You mentioned that 2-1-1 is an information and referral service. Who uses 2-1-1 and what happens when you dial the number?

It’s designed for anyone who needs help that’s not the kind of dire emergency where you’d dial 9-1-1. Maybe you’ve lost your job and need food for the family. Or, you don’t have money or medical insurance, but you’re sick and need to see a doctor.

Actually, you can get help with a lot of things. Food. Housing. Utilities. Childcare. Financial education. Health care. Job training. Counseling. Mental health and substance abuse. Senior services. The list goes on.

All you need to do is dial 2-1-1. Operators who speak English, Spanish and other languages will ask how they can help and where you live, so they can find resources in your area. It’s free, confidential and available all the time.

Since August, the call center has received about 64 calls per month from Lee County, with the highest number coming in December, when 71 people needed help. Over that period, the most-common request was for help paying utilities. After that came housing expenses, food, emergency shelter, medical care, dental care, home rental listings and crisis intervention hotlines. More than half of the callers ask for referrals; the rest request some kind of information.

At this very moment, the call center is receiving a lot of requests for tax preparation, heating assistance and substance abuse services.

Almost 90 percent of North Carolinians SEmD including all of us who live in Lee, Harnett, Chatham and Moore counties SEmD live in the 2-1-1 service area, where more than 18,000 resources are available by phone. But for those who live in areas without phone access, what other options are available?

The good news is that counties are joining every day — Rutherford, for example, is planning to begin service next month — and, soon, we hope to have phone coverage everywhere in the state.

Until then, you can still use the service online at www.nc211.org or through a free mobile app that works on the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. Both of those options allow you to search the same database used by 2-1-1 operators.

What role does the United Way of Lee County play in North Carolina’s 2-1-1 system?

Every county has one group which serves as the local partner with North Carolina 2-1-1, and we’re that organization for Lee. That means we’re responsible for providing information that goes into the database and paying the fee for local residents to have access to the service.

As you can imagine, it’s expensive to operate this kind of service around the clock. It’s the kind of thing that we couldn’t begin to offer all by ourselves, but providing it across the state makes it more affordable. Still, we need to pay our share of the expense.

When we began offering the 2-1-1 about five years ago, we had several corporate sponsors who helped get us started and we’re very thankful for them.

Since 2-1-1 has been in place for more than a decade now, can you share a story about how someone has used 2-1-1?

Absolutely. One man was overwhelmed when he called 2-1-1. He had lost his job, was behind on mortgage payments and felt incredibly stressed by the need to get health care, counseling and home repairs.

The operator made some referrals and then followed up a few days later. Based on those initial referrals, the man already had an appointment for foreclosure prevention counseling and received help with his resume from a local job assistance center. He said 2-1-1 helped him feel more positive about his situation.

We know there are many more success stories out there. But since the 2-1-1 service is confidential, it can be difficult to learn about them. We’d love to hear from local people who received help from 2-1-1. Maybe some will drop us an e-mail or give us a call, so we can share those successes, too!