I used to volunteer answering the phone lines for 211. Actually I volunteered answering the phones for two suicide hotlines but 211 was the bread and butter and funding for the suicide hotlines. Of course, we lost our 211 funding and the suicide hotlines are now suffering their own slow death. Meanwhile my senators are earning $194,000 per year and “require” a cost of living increase.
I encourage anyone who could use a little fiscal assistance to call their local 211 (like 911 but with a 2) and find out what local resources are available to them.
You may be able to get assistance with rent, mortgage, heat, utilities, crime, domestic abuse issues, medical, dental, free tax prep, pet care, free cell phones, free cars, medical transportation, employment assistance, support groups, mental health, etcetera. If you need information about summer camps, day cares, the mayor’s office, places to volunteer, or even a non-emergency police number, 211 may be able to provide that information. Think of them as the yellow pages but don’t use them as directory assistance. They only provide information to non-profits and government agencies. If there is a dead skunk in front of your house, they should be able to provide a number to the animal control officer in your town. They won’t give you the number for your local McDonalds (although, on slow days, I have).
211 doesn’t provide the actual assistance, only referrals to organizations who offer that assistance. If you don’t know where to apply for food stamps, we can help you. If you already know that you should go to the DSS, you wouldn’t need to call us. HOWEVER, we may know of organization and community action programs who can assist, expedite or even advocate on your behalf regarding the procurement of food stamps so you won’t have to personally go to the DSS.
Don’t be afraid or insulted to provide the 211 operator with personal and statistical data either. That information is important for them in obtaining future funding and grants and is also important information to organizations who invest in certain communities. For instance, 211 will first require your zip code to find what is available in your area. If statistical data shows that there is an increase in Hispanic callers in a certain region, they may be able to use that information to show organizations who serve the Hispanic community that there is a need to augment assistance in those areas. If our data shows that there is an increase in single parent households looking for child care or other child related assistance, it could help us in procuring future funding from organizations that provide child related services and wish for us to provide referrals to their organizations.
There are many organizations who only provide assistance to people who are victims of domestic abuse, are HIV+, have arrest records, do or don’t have children, are of a certain nationality or, there may even be gender qualifiers. Don’t be afraid to reveal personal information because it could mean the difference between the call specialist from finding you help or not.
Our database was hierarchical, meaning, if you needed clothing assistance, I would type “Clothing” and a list of agencies would appear for your zip code. I could further fine tune that list to age (child, teen or adult), then gender, then employment, etcetera. There are some organizations for instance, who will provide new and free clothing only to unemployed women going on job interviews. If you get the job, they will then provide you with five free outfits. If you fail to freely provide me with that information, I wouldn’t be able to find that organization for you. However, it really isn’t as odious as that.
One day a man called me looking for food assistance. I listed off all the food pantries in his area. He had been to all of them and most of them only offered assistance once a month which wasn’t enough. He had already been to DSS and his local churches. In passing, he mentioned that he can’t even afford food for his dog and sometimes provides for her before he eats himself. Information like that puts me into advocacy mode. I thought that if I could save him money in pet food, he’d have more money for himself. I rattled off a litany of sub-groups asking him if anyone in his household had mental health issues, drug or alcohol issues, was a veteran, had HIV, and he stopped me saying, “Yes, I have HIV.” I typed that into my database and an organization which provides pet food and veterinary care for the pets of people with HIV came up. I wasn’t able to help him for what he called for, but I was able to ameliorate his overall condition.
There were some callers I wasn’t able to help so I would ask them for their name and number, then go talk to other volunteers to see if they had ideas. Often, someone would be able to come up with some solution since not every organization poised for assistance in the community was listed in our database. Many of them don’t want to be listed because they are already over taxed with requests for help.
When people call for help and they live in communities which have no support services at all, or those services have already been exhausted, I try to brainstorm with people on ways they can save money and cut expenses.
If someone can’t afford their phone bill, I let them know about the free government sponsored cell phones. If they have internet, they can subscribe to iCall or GoogleTalk and cancel their landline. Maybe they can go halfies with a neighbor on internet WiFi or trash pickup. I know a guy who makes $90,000 per year but has six kids and they live at poverty level. He packs their daily garbage in plastic grocery store bags and rolls them into small, neat bundles. Each day, he or the kids take them to work or school and discreetly drop them in trash cans. It saves them about $30 per month which isn’t much, but can equal food, heat, shoes or internet. Again, money not spent in one area can be spent elsewhere.
So, call 211. Be not afraid. Don’t be too proud or ashamed. They’re there to help. They want to help. Helping you helps them. Some of us even get a high off of helping people. Your 211 may be very busy and the person on the phone may not be permitted to deviate from the script in front of them, but maybe you’ll get lucky and get someone who is willing to do some sleuthing and sacrifice their quota for you.
When my 211 closed, our region was absorbed by a 211 three hundred miles away. I know for a fact that our community is less for it, especially when I talk to some of the community service organizations and hear their complaints on the quality of the current referrals. Also, we volunteers live in this community and know of resources not listed in the database. Someone 300 miles away would not be aware of such information.
Half of one senator’s salary could have funded us for another year and helped provide quality care to an increasing population of people in need, who have never before navigated the waters of seeking support.