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The goal: One phone number to reach social services

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Posted: Tuesday, November 17, 2009 1:20 pm

A single mother desperately needs coats for her three children. She doesn’t have a car but will take a BARTA bus to anyone who can give her free coats.

Another single mother, living on a fixed income, is having trouble paying her water bill. She wants to find an agency that will help but doesn’t know who to contact.

Another woman has a changing table, playpen, household goods and clothing she no longer needs. She would like to donate these items to a nonprofit organization that helps poor families, abused women or young mothers. But she’s not sure which nonprofit could put them to the best use.

These requests – all from people in and around Berks County – weren’t received by a social service agency like the Salvation Army Reading Corps or United Way of Berks County.

Instead, they were posted to Reading’s Freecycle group, a 9,000-strong e-mail service that connects people who are giving things away to people who want what’s being given away.

It’s a symptom of a problem many people in Berks’ social services community see: The county is full of charities and nonprofit organizations that help people in need, but the average person can’t navigate the maze of options.

Berks TALKLINE manages a">database of community resources that lists 291 entries, including schools and municipalities.

But the county doesn’t have a central phone number people can call to learn about which social services match their needs.

Lancaster County has">United Way LINC, the Philadelphia area has">First Call for Help and the Lehigh Valley has">Valley Wide Help, run by the American Red Cross. The three also have online databases.

Why doesn’t Berks have one?

Karen Rightmire, retired president of the United Way of Berks County, said simply that no one in Berks took on the task of setting up a line for information and referral (I&R).

I&R is very complicated work and, to do it right, requires money and staff,” she said in an e-mail. “Here a few agencies have taken on pieces of I&R but none have been able to do the entire service.”

Last year the county"> asked for state money to set up the service but didn’t receive any.

Rightmire said the United Way explored the idea once but dropped it because it looked like something else was coming: a statewide information and referral service called 2-1-1.

What is 2-1-1?

The idea behind 2-1-1 is simple: Call that number and instantly get connected to a trained operator who can point you to social services that match your needs.

Are you laid off and looking for a job training program? Call 2-1-1.

Have school supplies to donate but don’t know where to send them? Call 2-1-1.

Need to find home health care for an aging parent? Call 2-1-1.

Residents in"> all but four states – one of them Pennsylvania – have access to 2-1-1, generally provided by the United Way.

Call the number in Berks and you’re greeted with a recording that says, “Your call cannot be completed as dialed.”

Some people in Pennsylvania and Berks are trying to change that.

For years, a group led by the United Way of Pennsylvania has worked to launch the service statewide.

On Oct. 19, the United Way asked the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission to reserve 2-1-1 as a statewide information and referral line.

Commission spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said people can">comment on the proposal, and the PUC will consider those comments in its decision. She couldn’t estimate when the phone number may be reserved.

Tony Ross, president of the United Way of Pennsylvania, said reserving the phone number is the next critical step. Once that happens, he expects 2-1-1 to start in the Philadelphia area in the first part of 2010.

The idea is for the service to stretch statewide but have several local offices answer calls. Each local group has to figure out how to pay for it, Ross said.

The timeline for bringing 2-1-1 to Berks isn’t clear. Pat Giles, senior vice president of community impact at the county United Way, said 2-1-1 may be available in Berks sometime next year, but it’s still not clear how much it would cost or where the money would come from.

Right now it looks as if Lancaster’s United Way office would take on the task of answering calls from Berks and several other counties, Giles said.

Running 2-1-1

The country’s first 2-1-1 service started in">Atlanta in 1997 with a private donation, although the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta had already provided an information and referral line for years.

Now the United Way runs the round-the-clock line with 58 employees, 35 of whom answer calls from 13 counties. The Atlanta line also takes calls from other parts of the state when other Georgia information and referral lines are closed.

All told, 2-1-1 operators in Atlanta take more than 1,000 calls a day.

Donna Burnham, director of 2-1-1 in Atlanta, said staffing the line and paying for it are perennial challenges. It also takes a lot of work to make sure the database of services is up-to-date; three employees are tasked with that job, and volunteers work on it too.

But the service is visible and valued in the Atlanta area. Agencies like the American Red Cross and Salvation Army tell clients about the phone number, and newspapers and television stations broadcast it during emergencies like the floods that hit Georgia in September.

“Every time something happens, that’s the one number they say, ‘Call, call, call,’ ” said United Way spokeswoman Malika White.

She added that during its fundraising campaign last year, the Atlanta United Way used 2-1-1 data to figure out where to direct money, based on callers’ needs.">Connecticut was the first state to provide 2-1-1 to all its residents. When the number was assigned there in 1998, the service had existed for two years under the name Infoline.

And the state had several information and referral services before that, even in the 1970s, when operators relied on card catalogs.

Now Connecticut’s system has 4,600 agencies in its database, said Tanya Barrett, who runs the service for the United Way of Connecticut. Operators took more than 450,000 calls during the fiscal year ending June 30. The state has about 3.5 million people. Pennsylvania has about 12.4 million.

Barrett said funding is always a challenge for her. The state’s 2-1-1 service has about 175 employees, and three had to be cut this year because of budget cuts.

And it’s also hard to make sure people know the 2-1-1 line exists, she said. Connecticut’s United Way promotes the line in places like schools and senior centers, and most of its calls come from people who have called before.

She suggested that Pennsylvania pour its efforts into hiring qualified people to take 2-1-1 calls. All 34 of her operators must have bachelor’s degrees, Barrett said.

Similar services near Berks

Debra Travis, 46, of Northeast Philadelphia, said she hasn’t been able to work since 2006, when she hurt her back during her duties as a certified nursing assistant.

In October, she needed help paying her electric and gas bills and made many phone calls looking for assistance. During one, someone told her about First Call for Help, an information and referral line run by the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

The First Call operator gave Travis phone numbers for agencies that could help her. She planned to pass them along to her son Sydney, 24, who lives in North Philadelphia and lost his maintenance job with the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

Travis said the United Way operator was not only helpful, but polite. And that meant a lot.

“Both of us (she and her son) are used to working and paying our bills, and when you face a hardship like this, it can be hard,” she said. “I always worked, ever since I was 14.”

Data from three information and referral services in eastern Pennsylvania show that the most common calls are from people who need help paying for utilities and housing.

Official figures say First Call for Help took about 9,500 calls during the last fiscal year, but Janet Ryder of the Philadelphia-area United Way said the agency’s computer system didn’t count all the calls.

She also suspects the figure is low partly because First Call for Help has just two operators who work during normal business hours. The poor economy also means more callers have multiple needs, so each call takes longer. And not enough people know the service exists, she said.

Ryder said a growing number of people are out of work for the first time.

“Most people don’t know (about First Call for Help) because they don’t need,” Ryder said. “The minute you need, you have to do a whole lot of homework.”

United Way LINC, which serves Lancaster County, gets a lot of calls from people who need help paying their rent or mortgage or finding a cheaper place to live. Of the nearly 21,000 calls it received in 2008, help with housing was the reason behind more than 1,300 calls.

More recently, LINC is taking quite a few calls from workers who have been laid off or had their hours reduced, said director Toni McCuistion. More and more callers are being sent to food banks.

Ross said some of Pennsylvania’s United Ways run information and referral lines, but not all do. And in some offices it’s more formal than others.

The United Way of Bucks County doesn’t count its phone calls, and staff take them even if that’s not their job, said Sharon Barker, senior vice president of community impact and development.

“Within the office we just do it all day long,” Barker said. “We literally handle calls all day.”

Who do Berks residents call?

In September, Berks’ United Way started working with other local agencies to help people access social services through its"> HelpLink Network.

Giles said the program is still in the early stages but has helped people connect to social services and apply for programs like food stamps.

Still, residents who need social services call all sorts of places: the United Way,">Berks TALKLINE and the county 9-1-1 system, to name a few.

“I would prefer to have that diverted somewhere else,” Randy Cole, director of the county emergency services department, said of the errant 9-1-1 calls.

Service Access and Management, which runs a hotline for mental health services, sometimes takes calls from people who need help paying their utility bills, said Miriam Rivera, director of crisis services.

At the same time, Rivera said few know about services SAM provides to people whose family members commit suicide. Perhaps a service like 2-1-1 would fix that, she said.

TALKLINE gives about one-quarter of its callers information that 2-1-1 would probably provide, executive director Sandy Eshelman said. But she doesn’t think 2-1-1 would reduce her call volume – almost 7,000 in the fiscal year ending June 30.

Paying for 2-1-1

The United Way is the primary source of money for 2-1-1 in most states that have it, said Linda Daily, 2-1-1 director at the United Way of America. But some money comes from governments, donations and faith-based organizations.

In Atlanta, the United Way provides 98 percent of 2-1-1’s $2.2 million budget.

In Connecticut, the state provides 92 percent of the $3.9 million to run the service.

The cost of a service that Pennsylvania provides now might give some estimate of prospective 2-1-1 funding in this state.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health runs">10 help lines that refer callers to public and private social-service providers. Those numbers received almost 138,000 calls in the year ending June 30.

The state awarded a $14.7 million contract to run those lines, along with a Web site, from June 2004 through February 2010.

In September, Ross, of the Pennsylvania United Way, estimated that running 2-1-1 statewide would cost between $5 million and $10 million each year. The service would use some of the same information and referral lines that exist now, so that wouldn’t all be new spending, he said.

A bill stalled in the state"> Senate would give the Department of Health $10 million to set up a statewide 2-1-1 line. Rep. Joseph Preston, D-Allegheny, introduced a similar bill two years ago and plans to do the same soon.

Preston’s research analyst, Tim Scott, said the money for 2-1-1 could come from consolidating existing services or partnering with public or private groups.

Scott expects the bill to pass because it has bipartisan support and because grassroots groups are pushing for it. But it wasn’t moving in Harrisburg because Pennsylvania’s 101-day budget impasse distracted lawmakers, he said.

And bills in Congress – one in the">House and one in the">Senate – would authorize spending $250 million over seven years on 2-1-1 systems nationwide.

Those bills also remain stalled. For that, a spokesman for Senate bill co-sponsor Patty Murray, D-Wash., blames the high-profile debate over health care reform.

Spokesman Matt McAlvanah said wide support for the bill means it will probably be considered, but he couldn’t say when.

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