They call at all hours, 365 days a year. People call because they lost their jobs and face eviction. They call because they received a shutoff notice from a utility company. They call because they’re not sure how they’ll be able to feed their children.
Last year, 40,462 calls were placed to United Way of Greater Cincinnati’s 211 helpline. It is not for emergencies — 911 serves that function — nor is it a crisis hotline. It is, however, “a place to turn when you don’t know where to turn,” says Jennifer Bieger, senior manager of United Way 211. “We’re a gateway to connect people to critically needed human services.”
In recognition of 211’s important role in providing resources that help people meet their basic needs, February 11 — 2/11 — has been designated National 211 Day. The service, available in much of the United States and Canada, is largely supported by regional United Ways.
At UWGC, most of the people answering 211 calls are certified information and referral specialists. They are trained to listen, engage, ask questions to assess a caller’s needs, and provide information and referrals to essential community resources in Adams, Brown, Clermont and Hamilton counties in Ohio; and Boone, Campbell, Grant and Kenton counties in Kentucky.
Perhaps never has 211 been more important than 2020, when a pandemic crashed the economy and stretched social service agencies almost to the breaking point. Last year more than half of UWGC’s 211 calls dealt with needs related to housing, utilities, and food.
Annette Feagin’s west-side Cincinnati family needed such help last fall. She and her two adult children lost their full-time jobs, and they had five children to feed. Their only source of income — a part-time job Feagin held — vanished when she needed emergency surgery. Feeling overwhelmed, she called 211.
A 211 call specialist connected her with a United Way worker assigned to the CARES Coordination Program. Soon, the family received assistance to pay for rent and utilities. What’s more, food was delivered just before Christmas. “The help was very much needed and appreciated,” Feagin said.
Other pandemic-related projects supported by 211 include providing seniors with information about vaccine resources; and gift card giveaways last spring to local residents through various United Way partnerships.
On any given day, a 211 call specialist might talk to people struggling with an array of problems, including legal matters, healthcare issues, clothing or household needs, mental health concerns, difficulties with transportation, or other issues.
“When people call in, some are at their wits’ end,” Bieger says. “They’re usually looking not only for somebody to listen to them, but to help them walk through the options, so that they can work toward a better quality of life.” The 211 staff provides callers with resources from a database that includes thousands of programs, services, and agencies.
In the first quarter of the year, 211 call specialists take many calls from people seeking information about United Way’s Free Tax Prep program, which provides eligible people with free income tax preparation and filing services. One such caller, Ms. Woods from the east side of Cincinnati, had never used Free Tax Prep and was a bit leery — until a call specialist put her at ease.
“She was really very kind,” Ms. Woods says, “and she guided me completely.” From that point on, “my experience (with Free Tax Prep) was wonderful.”
Indeed, not only do call specialists help connect people to a wide range of essential services, they do so in a caring, compassionate way. “They’re such great people,” Bieger says of the team she supervises, “with big hearts.”
For more information about 211, visit www.uwgc.org/211.
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