News : Need Non-emergency Assistance? Call 211 to be Connected to a Local Organization That Can Help
Lancaster, PA, USA, Jan, 2018 -- United Way wants 211 to be for social services what 911 is for emergencies — the number everyone knows to call to get help.
It has been 20 years since the program started but only five since it came to Lancaster County, so right now the United Way's goal is a lofty one.
But leaders say the program is close to meeting the requirement for a big advertising blitz.
"There’s long been a wait for 100 percent national coverage to be able to do national marketing, like during football games on Sundays," said Anne Walsh Fogoros, 211 operations director for United Way of Pennsylvania.
Today, Walsh Fogoros said, 211 is "very close" to being used statewide in Pennsylvania, with just a handful of counties to go and expectations of covering those counties in 2018.
She said she wasn’t sure on the statistics for other states but believed nationwide coverage was also coming within reach.
According to 211us.org, all but 12 states had full 211 coverage by 2013, and 93 percent of the U.S. population had access to 211 by February 2015.
Toni Gainer is director of the PA 211 East call center, which opened in Lancaster in 2012 and serves seven counties, using a constantly updated database to connect people with the organizations best able to help them.
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Gainer said most of the calls it gets are the result of agencies directing clients there or people seeing the number listed as the contact point for United Way’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program.
But, she said, as outreach continues, she’s hoping that 211 will become more widely known by the general public as the place to call for help with anything from hunger to homelessness to heating.
Currently, she said, "It might take a couple times of calling around to finally get to us, (but) once they do, they’re really glad that they found us."
For those who need help in hard times, calling 211 is a good start
Growth over time
In addition to Lancaster County, PA 211 East covers Berks, Carbon, Lebanon, Lehigh, Northampton and Schuylkill counties
In 2012, Gainer said, PA 211 East got 27,680 calls, of which 22,580 were from Lancaster County and 5,100 were from other counties.
The next four years saw slightly higher total call volumes varying from 33,923 to 36,826, she said. By Dec. 14 of this year, a high of 40.536 calls had been reached, of which 28,560 were from Lancaster and 11,976 from the other counties.
"We have been offering information and referral services to the Lancaster community for over 40 years, so local agencies and the general public have know about our services even before we became a 211 center," she said. "Plus we have some specific contracts that drive the call volume to 211 as well."
The most common request for assistance here is what United Way terms housing and utility assistance, which covers anything from shelter and weatherization programs to affordable housing to mortgage, rent and utility assistance.
Gainer said there were 7,791 calls in that category from Lancaster County this year.
In addition to serving as an information and referral service, Gainer said, 211 also helps local organizations with information about the biggest unmet needs that callers report.
In Lancaster, she said, the biggest needs are for housing resources, "both affordable housing availability, due to very long wait lists, and then help with emergency rental assistance payments."
People seeking services can also check out pa211east.org/Lancaster, which has a list of resources organized by county.
In addition to expanding its reach over time, the 211 program has also expanded its offerings by starting to accept texted requests.
That service started about three years ago, and adoption varied by region; Gainer said Lancaster began offering it in October 2016.
"People like to use texting, because you can use texting even when you’re out of minutes on your phone," said Walsh Fogoros. "It can be valuable when you need to talk about a very confidential matter — say, if you’re at work and you don’t want your colleagues to know that you’re facing a utility shutoff."
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Published: Thursday, January 4, 2018
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