211 hotline is a fast connection for non-emergency health and social services

A homeless single mom, Mary, didn’t know where to go for help and made an important call after having a baby in 2020. She called 211, a Social Services hotline that put her in touch with temporary housing.

Although she worked two jobs, Mary, who refused to give her last name, was unable to afford both rent and childcare. But 211 operators in Lake County put her in touch with YWCA childcare, financial aid for a security deposit, three months’ rent, and a landlord who accepted both.

“I never would have known if I hadn’t called 211,” Mary said in a video interview with United Way, which helps sponsor the service. She now has a steady job and a house. “I feel like 211… helped me a lot.”

A similar 211 service recently came to DuPage County, and more are planned to start early next year — possibly February 11 — in Chicago, suburban Cook County, and Kendall County. 211, like the better-known 911 for emergencies and Chicago’s 311 for city services, connects callers to non-emergency health and social services.

Phyllis Gary, an intake and referral specialist at the new DuPage County 211 hotline, answers calls on November 17, 2022 in Wheaton.  The new 211 social services hotline recently launched in DuPage County.

The most common services are assistance with paying rent and utilities, but they also include free and confidential crisis counseling, disaster relief, food supplies, health care, insurance, employment, and veterans’ services.

Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will are among the many counties that offer the service in Illinois. As a whole, the state is lagging behind the rest of the country in implementing the hotline, with nearly half of counties still without it.

But once Chicago and Kendall come online early next year, nearly 90% of the state’s population will be covered.

In DuPage, Illinois’ second most populous county after Cook, officials have earmarked $1.6 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act money to fund the program for its first three years.

The 24-hour, multilingual phone bank will be operated by Addison Consolidated Dispatch Center, which also provides 911 dispatch services, said County Board Chairman Dan Cronin.

“We are excited to introduce yet another component of DuPage County’s approach to strengthening our social safety net,” Cronin said.

Anticipating increased needs during and after the COVID pandemic, DuPage officials also provided millions of dollars in funding to strengthen the county’s social services. That included buying and remodeling a former Red Roof Inn in Downers Grove for PADS to use as a homeless shelter.

The costs differ per municipality. Kane County, whose service is provided by PATH, has an annual budget of approximately $86,000. The more populous Lake County, which has handled 150,000 calls in three years, has a budget of nearly $500,000, with funding from the county, local governments, foundations and individual donors.

The number of calls has increased significantly since the start of the COVID pandemic. In addition to the telephone hotline, people can access services in many provinces through 211 websites. Last year, Lake County had more than 57,000 contacts, 211 of them – most of them online.

But it often helps to talk to a 211 operator, United Way of Lake County spokeswoman Lori Nerheim said.

“The advantage of talking to someone is that they are trained navigators to get to the root of the need,” she said. “Many people may call with one need, say housing, but it may be a result of domestic violence, or there may be a need for food. Having someone to guide you is really valuable.”

Also using federal U.S. bailout funds, Kendall County has budgeted $136,000 for its program through 2025, county administrator Scott Koeppel said. Outgoing County Board chairman Scott Gryder helped set up the program through a nonprofit organization, Koeppel said.

The next step is to make sure people know the number. Only 21% of Lake County residents knew about the 211 service in a recent county survey.

“Ultimately, we want it to be as memorable as 911,” said United Way of Lake County president Kristi Long.

DuPage County board member Julie Renehan said officials expect 30,000 to 40,000 calls for assistance each year.

“211 meets real needs in real time,” she said. “This is the number to call if you don’t know who to call. This is one we can all be proud of.”

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