United Way of Greater Cincinnati’s 211 Helpline launched on Feb. 11, 2003. Since then, the free 24/7 service has been supporting community members by providing information and resources.
A Tuesday shift is just beginning for Rickie Holt Jr., a care coordinator for United Way of Greater Cincinnati’s 211 Helpline. He’s on the phone with a Hamilton County woman who for months has been trying unsuccessfully to get help paying her rent. She was referred to 211 by a United Way partner organization.
“I’m really frustrated. I’m overwhelmed,” she says. “I’m trying to stay afloat, trying to work as many hours as I possibly can and take care of my son, but I’m still behind.”
“I understand,” Holt says. “It is a frustrating thing.”
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For Holt and other United Way workers who staff the 211 Helpline, each day brings new pleas for help and new opportunities to assist families striving for economic well-being.
Holt and his coworkers provide information and empathy in equal measure. “Every call that comes in, I picture either my mother or my sister or somebody (I know) who needs help,” he says.
The empathy Holt feels for callers stems at least in part from the adversity he faced in childhood. He knows what it is like to feel helpless and hopeless.
He grew up in a low-income, single-parent household in Detroit. Home was the Brewster-Douglass housing projects, where the Supremes’ Diana Ross and Mary Wilson and other famous people lived during their early years. But by the 1970s, the projects had become infamous for drug abuse and violence. In that environment, young Rickie Holt struggled immensely, failing two grades.
He was in sixth grade when his grandparents gained partial custody of him. He says his grandmother, in particular, was instrumental in turning his life around. Without her, he would not have attended Wilberforce University and earned a bachelor’s degree in social work. “Without her, I would not be here,” he says.
The woman who can’t pay her rent is glad Holt is on the phone with her. “Thank you,” she says. “I need the help, seriously.”
She says previously submitted applications for rental assistance were denied. She’s not sure whether her landlord filled out the proper forms.
“He said if I don’t pay him by today, he’s going forward with the three-day notice,” she says, desperation starting to creep into her voice. “He doesn’t know if I’m lying. All he knows is he’s not getting his money.”
Holt explains that a landlord can give a tenant a three-day notice to move out, but that is just the first step in the eviction process. If the tenant does not move out, the landlord can file an eviction lawsuit.
“Is your landlord willing to work with you?” Holt asks.
The caller believes he is.
Much of Holt’s career in social services has involved working with young people in crisis, including homeless youth or those with emotional or behavioral problems. He says he may again choose to work with youth someday, but he left that field after being assaulted by a teen diagnosed with an aggressive personality disorder.
At United Way, the 211 Helpline receives calls from Adams, Brown, Clermont and Hamilton counties in Ohio; and Boone, Campbell, Grant and Kenton counties in Kentucky. Call specialists are trained to engage callers and ask questions to assess their needs. Then, by tapping into a large database of organizations and agencies, the call specialists refer people to critically needed services, such as housing, food, rent and more.
Holt previously worked as a 211 call specialist, but for the past year he has been a member of United Way’s care coordination team, which has a narrower focus. Under a contract with Hamilton County, care coordinators assist residents of the county who have been adversely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Funding for that program comes from the federal CARES Act.
Tacked onto Holt’s cubicle walls are flyers with information he can readily dispense, including COVID-19 vaccine clinics, property tax and utility relief programs, emergency assistance for pets and the like.
Holt says he feels good helping others however he can, “especially being able to talk them through issues they aren’t able to navigate. I just like working with people.”
Holt learns that the woman is behind the wheel, driving. He wants her to be safe, so he asks that they talk later. Before hanging up, he says he’ll email his phone number to her along with the form her landlord will need. “I want him to call me so I can explain the situation and I can walk him through the vendor form,” Holt says. “That’s going to be crucial to getting your application processed. Hopefully, he’ll be a little bit more lenient.”
“Thank you,” the woman on the other end of the phone says. “God bless you. I appreciate you doing your job today.”