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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Ambassadors of the 211 Urgent Help System

Over 12.5 million people relied on the anonymous telephone based goodwill ambassadors when they called 2-1-1 in 2014 for referrals to human and social services. The dial-211 ideal since it began in Los Angeles in 1981 as Infoline, they have fielded over 34 million calls since they began. The Infoline (dial 211) ideal has proven so successful that nearly 95% of the entire United States and over 80% of Canadians now have access to these special services through independent agencies of the state and through non-profit organizations like the United Way.

In 1994 the United Way teamed up with the Alliance of Information and Referral Services which led the US FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to finally set-aside 211 nationally for this designated purpose.

The operators at the other end of the line help callers find jobs, housing, food, transitional housing, health care, and more. The services are provided free, anonymously, and confidentially. The following article discusses a new 211 center that was established weeks ago in Northern California.


SAN JOAQUIN COUNTY, CALIFORNIA, USA

211 Service Up and Running

By Zachary K. Johnson - Record Staff Writer
March 31, 2015 - 7:28 PM

STOCKTON — Today marks the first day of the 211 phone service in San Joaquin County, a system that allows anybody in the county to make a free phone call linking them up to social services.

Organizers hope that word will spread quickly enough so that 211 will become as synonymous with finding resources as 911 is for help during an emergency. Besides operators fielding phone calls, the system includes an Internet database where people can look up resources for themselves.

“211 is the national standard for providing public information for referrals to available services in the community, such as food, shelter, counseling and social services,” said Mike Miller, director of the San Joaquin County Human Services Agency. “We think it’s a very important tool to provide additional services to our clients.”

The 211 directory service is commonplace around the country and it spread fast across California over the past 10 years until San Joaquin was the most populous county in the state without a 211 service. More than 90 percent of people in the state had access to 211 services before those living in San Joaquin County, according to the county.

Dialing 2-1-1 or going online to 211sj.org/ will lead to many links to county-provided help, but it will also link into nonprofits and others that are part of a coalition of 40 local organizations. But the county isn’t running the program. That’s being done by Family Resource & Referral Center, a Stockton nonprofit that began 35 years ago helping people get child care.

When people need help, it takes an average of eight phone calls to get to the right place to receive that assistance, Executive Director Kay Ruhstaller said. That will change with the new service. When families fall onto hard times, they need help quickly, or a crisis will continue to spiral into something even worse, she said.

“We have witnessed this so many times in child care. It’s that one support that makes it all stay together, and without it, it all unravels. Your work, and then your house, and then it all goes to ‘H’ in a handbag,” she said. “If we can just provide those concrete supports when the family’s in need, it stabilizes them.”

And since people in a crisis often need more than just one kind of help, the operators will work to find out what those might be, said Tiffany Phovixay, who is managing the program at the nonprofit. “There are a wealth of resources we are able to offer,” she said. “That’s a key piece right there for 211.”

People looking for this help who don’t know where to go often turn to nonprofit organizations and government agencies and even emergency dispatchers at 911, organizers said. The new system will help reduce those calls and allow those groups to do the jobs they are there to do, Ruhstaller said.

And as people call 211 or use the website, the system will track where people are getting help and what needs are being unmet. Google Translate can put information into 150 languages and callers can tap into translation services covering 200 languages.

The service is 24 hours a day and could also be used to link people to specific assistance after a natural disaster, such as a flood, or some other emergency.

When the idea of starting a 211 in the county was first studied, there wasn’t money to get it off the ground during the throes of the economic downturn, Ruhstaller said. Nonprofits were hit particularly hard. But the wait also means the technology available now is better than 10 years ago, and the path forward was already well mapped out, she said.

More funding is needed to keep the operation going or expanding as more calls come in. The group is also seeking volunteers to join the staff operators.

Pat Collier of Stockton is volunteering because she recognized the need for a service like this while working as a nurse at St. Joseph’s Medical Center.

“Working in the nonprofit area … you may do a lot of good work, but it’s very hard to get it out to other people,” she said. “Other counties have this, and we have seen the benefit … hopefully we can see the good effects in our county of connecting people to resources.”

For her, volunteering allows her to play a role in making that connection.

El Concilio, a Stockton-based nonprofit organization, offers a wide range of services, including assisting criminal offenders in programs intended to reduce recidivism and helping people acquire health insurance. “It’s for everybody who needs access to care,” said José Rodriguez, president and CEO of El Concilio.

But because of the organization's name, some people don’t realize they can get help from the organization, which also has operations in Stanislaus County, which has a long-standing 211 program. In that county, it has helped direct people to El Concilio who might not have known there was help there for them, Rodiguez said, saying he expected the 211 operators in San Joaquin County would link up people to assistance they don’t know about, and not just from El Concilio.

“I know it's going to make a difference for a lot of folks reaching out for social services.”

— Contact reporter Zachary K. Johnson at (209) 546-8258 or zjohnson@recordnet.com. Follow him at recordnet.com/johnsonblog and on Twitter @zacharykjohnson