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Calling 211 

Social services only work when they reach the people who need them most.

Too seldom is New Orleans held up as an exemplary model by advocates making a national push for innovative and effective social programs. But that's the scenario as Congress begins to consider federal funding to create a nationwide system for the 211 hotline -- a 911-type phone number for connecting callers to varied social service agencies equipped to handle everything from suicide threats to gambling addiction.

In Louisiana, 211 has emerged as a key information line for finding services such as after-school programs, care for aging parents and volunteer opportunities. "It's a needed program," says Marilyn Shraberg, local director of crisis and information services for VIA LINK, the nonprofit United Way member agency that created 211 in southeast Louisiana. "It's been well-utilized in our community, as well as throughout the country."

In 1997, Atlanta became the first city to enact a 211 system after the FCC designated the three-digit number as a nationwide hotline for social service information and referral. Locally, 211 became established in mid-2001 and was fully operational a few months later ("The 411 on 211," Dec. 11, 2001). The local 211 service covers Orleans, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. Bernard, St. Tammany and Plaquemines parishes. It was the 17th system created in the country; Lafayette's was fourth. The rest of Louisiana is now covered by 211 in the Baton Rouge, Lake Charles and Shreveport areas, with a Monroe-based operation covering northeast Louisiana expected in a few months. Nationally, 211 now operates in 26 states. Collectively, 132 systems serve approximately 90 million Americans -- more than 32 percent of the population.

The 211 hotline still suffers from a lack of public awareness, however. Also, the system, unlike 911, isn't accessible by cell phones. But advocates are setting the national push at the top of their agenda. "[A uniform 211 would] increase public awareness and use," Shraberg says. "And it would empower individuals, families and communities to help themselves."

With no service fee for users, the local 211 service helped 80,000 callers in its last fiscal year. Funding comes from a variety of sources, including the state Department of Mental Health, United Way and a number of private entities. "Recently, with the economy, the military deployments, many, many calls are coming from people that need help," Shraberg says. "The needs of the community seem to be increasing, and their needs are complex."

Yet, Shraberg admits her agency is constantly searching for more funding. The federal bill, titled "Calling for 2-1-1 Act," was introduced last September by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., and Reps. Tom Burch, D-Ky., and Anna Eshoo, D-Calif. It authorizes $200 million annually from the Dept. of Commerce to develop and sustain 211 across the country. Each state would designate a lead entity to develop a plan and administer the money. A 50 percent match would be required of each state. Advocates for 211 have wisely pushed for the state match, noting the importance of local participation. This state-national relationship also helps ensure coverage of rural areas -- currently, 211 hotlines exist mostly in and around cities. Funding recipients must abide by standards established by the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems (AIRS), of which the local VIA LINK is a member.

"There are literally hundreds and hundreds of services and 1-800 numbers linking to services across the country that people don't even know about," says Mary Hogan, the national president of AIRS. "We need to consolidate the system and get people the right number, right away. Having some federal dollars behind this ensures the success of it. [With a national 211 system], people would get the same information across the country. I think, with it in place, people would be able to get the help they need, when they need it, no matter where they are."

Currently, the goal of 211 advocates is to add as many Congressional co-sponsors while the bill is in committee. So far, 29 senators and 121 representatives have lent their support. Of the Louisiana delegation, only Sen. Mary Landrieu and Rep. Rodney Alexander, a Democrat from Quitman, have signed up. More senators and representatives should look closely at the state's positive experience with 211 and join the national push. Citizens wishing to contact their senators and representatives on behalf of the legislation may use a toll-free number, (888) PASS211.

The bi-partisan sponsorship for the 211 national hotline underscores its common-sense approach. Available social services only work when they reach the people who need them most. The hotline also makes good fiscal sense because it encourages Americans to fully utilize available resources.

"Right now, we're ahead of where we thought we'd be," says Patrick McIntyre, the national director of public policy for United Way, who is tracking the bill. "The goal is to have committee hearings in September, and have the bill passed in next year's Congress. We're feeling pretty good about it." So are we. In fact, New Orleans' leadership in 211 is something we can all feel pretty good about.

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