FORT WAYNE – It used to be that if you needed help – with your rent, your gas bill, your grocery bill, or your abusive spouse – figuring out whom to call for that help was nearly as complicated as the problem itself.
Not anymore. Now, one call to 211 can connect you with services you didn’t know existed.
“It’s overwhelming if you’ve never had to ask for or use assistance before,” said Tiffany Bailey of United Way of Allen County. “There’s difficulty in just knowing you need to ask. Then, how do you get started, who do you call? That’s where we can fill a need.”
But a study from the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs shows that in much of Indiana, public officials weren’t even aware their counties had 211 systems.
In 2010, the Indiana Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations surveyed nearly 1,150 local government officials, including mayors, county auditors, county commissioners, county and town council members, school board members and township trustees. When the commission asked those officials whether their county had a 211 system, 82 percent of those who said “no” were in counties that did, in fact, have 211.
Kirsten Gronbjerg, the head of the research team at IU’s Center on Philanthropy, which studied the survey data, said she was surprised so many officials did not know their counties had 211 and said a valuable resource might be going unused.
Today, all 92 counties have 211, administered by the nonprofit Indiana 211 Partnership.
In northeast Indiana’s 13 counties, the program is handled by United Way of Allen County in Fort Wayne.
In 2012, northeast Indiana’s 211 call center handled 45,592 calls, up 1 percent from the year before and up 111 percent from 2004, its first full year of service.
Gronbjerg said her team just received the data from the 2012 survey and is eager to study it.
“The important policy question before was about extending the service statewide, which happened, and then making people aware of it and having funding in place to maintain it,” Gronbjerg said. “So it will be very interesting to see what the patterns look like when we get that data.”
Bailey said there’s no question that in Fort Wayne, at least, officials are well aware of 211. The city’s popular 311 service transfers callers to 211 all the time.
“We have a great relationship with the 311 call center, and I think having both has helped us both,” Bailey said. “Before there was 311, many of those individuals (needing city government help) contacted us. So we tracked all the city departments and their phone numbers so we could at least tell them what number to call.
“For 311 to be able to help them now, it’s been a benefit for city residents and it’s been a benefit for us.”
And having 211 helps city employees, because they now have a simple way to help residents who call with needs they can’t address.
Back when the mayor’s office had neighborhood advocates, those staffers were often walking directories of social services because people would call the mayor’s office trying to find a way to feed their families.
“People still call 311 for food assistance,” Bailey said. “We transfer calls back and forth all the time.”
In 2012, the city’s 311 call center handled about 170,000 calls.
IU’s Gronbjerg said one of the most important things about the statewide 211 network is that it puts the funding in place to ensure the call centers have up-to-date information. For instance, if a program runs out of money or is taken over by a different agency, the Indiana 211 Partnership can ensure that process continues. The 211 Partnership also keeps track of application deadlines.
Bailey said that thanks to a state contract, the 211 centers are now doing even more: All callers are asked whether anyone in their household is receiving food stamps. With just a few questions, call handlers can see whether callers may be eligible and help them in that process, too.
“They may think they’re calling us to get help for rent, but they may get things they didn’t know they were eligible for,” she said. “We can help prioritize their needs and get them connected to the right agencies.”