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News : United Way Call Center a Lifeline for Thousands
Providence, RI, USA, Feb 9 2015 -- On Friday morning, hotline worker Michelle Terranova talks to 15 worried Rhode Islanders. Many can’t pay their heating bills. It’s 20 degrees outside.
"They’re having a hard time," Terranova says. "They’ve paid one bill and they can’t pay another."
Terranova, who works at United Way of Rhode Island’s 2-1-1 call center, directs the callers to several groups that can help: local community action agencies, the Rhode Island Good Neighbor Energy Fund, the Diocese of Providence.
The 2-1-1 hotline has been around for years. But the program got a boost two weeks ago from Governor Raimondo, who urged Rhode Islanders to call the number during January’s blizzard.
Unlike 9-1-1, an emergency number answered by the police, 2-1-1 connects callers to a United Way worker who can refer them to hundreds of social service agencies. The agencies can help callers pay bills, find food and shelter, get medical help, find child care or senior services, or land a job.
Last year, 197,365 people called the 2-1-1 number, according to a new report scheduled for release on Wednesday. Most callers sought help with utility bills, housing and food.
"Economic recovery following 2008 has stalled for thousands of Rhode Islanders," the report says.
United Way of Rhode Island started the program in 2007, months before the recession hit, and in a half-year hotline workers fielded 39,000 calls.
Then the stock market crashed and the unemployment rate soared. Suddenly, the calls came from homeowners about to lose everything. "They said, ‘I’m losing my home, I’m losing my job,’" says 2-1-1 program director Cristina Amedeo.
The number of 2-1-1 calls peaked in 2013, to nearly 213,600.
Although the number of callers fell by 7.5 percent in 2014, many of the calls the year before were tied to a winter storm in early February, which dropped more than two feet of snow on some neighborhoods and left 187,000 electric customers in the dark.
If you strip out the storm-related calls, the calls for other kinds of help — food, housing and utility assistance — remained strong last year, says Anthony Maione, United Way’s president and CEO.
"The people we see are struggling," he says. "Yes, we’re putting people back to work. But they’re working at jobs that cannot support a family."
United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta was the first to introduce a 2-1-1 service in 1997.
In Rhode Island, 26 employees and 5 volunteers work two shifts at the 24-hour call center.
The agency gets an average of nearly 70 calls a day. That number jumps in January and February, when people struggle to pay their heating bills.
Hot line workers, or "call specialists," can direct callers to thousands of agencies, although they typically deal with about 300.
The call center’s budget is supported through federal and state-administered grants and public, private and corporate donations. Last year, the agency established a chat line. It also started visiting soup kitchens and community centers in a new 2-1-1 van.
Last year, confusion about the federal health-care law sparked a record 70,677 health-related calls.
And more than 18,000 Rhode Islanders called 2-1-1 looking for a job. "Few states have been hit harder" by the recession than Rhode Island, the report says.
Another 62,249 people called in search of homes and apartments. Nearly 48,000 called looking for emergency shelter.
On Friday, call specialist Lucious Murchison spoke to a Providence woman with three children. She needed a place to live because a lender was foreclosing on her landlord’s property. Murchison suggested she call Rhode Island Housing’s legal department. He also placed the caller on a waiting list for room at one of the state’s homeless shelters for families.
"Foreclosure problems," Murchison says, "are still pretty common in Rhode Island."
In another room, Tony Medeiros talks to other callers. His first call was from an elderly woman who wanted to know what day it was.
The job changes you, makes you more sensitive, more understanding, says Medeiros, a former financial planner. "You have to be a listener. And you have to be gentle — really, really gentle."
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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About United Way of Rhode Island’s 2-1-1 Call Center:
2-1-1 is the statewide resource center for information and referrals, and it comes with the support and expertise of a national network of referral experts.
Published: Friday, February 13, 2015