By LISA CAPOBIANCO
During and after Hurricane Sandy, United Way 2-1-1 offered emergency information around the clock statewide. A free, health and human service information and referral helpline that runs 24/7, 2-1-1 handled over 18,000 storm-related calls from Oct. 27 through Nov. 4. The top service requests included power outages, sheltering, and food replacements.
Hurricane Sandy serves as just example in which 2-1-1 has helped individuals in need of basic human services in Connecticut since 1976.
Donna Osuch, president and CPO of United Way of West Central Connecticut, said state residents can call 2-1-1 for anything whether they are in a crisis or is just looking for summer camp opportunities, etc.
“To have a phone number you can call any time, 24 hours of the day every day of the year is really beneficial to addressing people’s needs when they have them,” said Osuch.
“It’s such a wonderful resource that we have…and we just want people in the community to take advantage of it,” added Colleen Bolingbroke, Director of Marketing at United Way of West Central Connecticut.
For over 40 years, 2-1-1 has helped connect individuals and families with resources they need in a variety of areas, including financial stability, crisis intervention, emergency response, and tax assistance, among others. It is certified by the American Association of Suicidology for crisis intervention and accredited by the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems. Translation services are available in different languages, and trained professionals answer each call, which is confidential. Besides calling 2-1-1 directly, residents can use 2-1-1’s user-friendly website where the community can navigate for services efficiently.
Housed in Rocky Hill, 2-1-1 Connecticut currently has a little over 190 staff members who all hold degrees in a number of areas.
Wendy Caruso director of 2-1-1 Call Center Operations, said staff members of 2-1-1 are always present during a crisis, such as the Newtown tragedy that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. They have also taken many calls for weather-related disasters, like Hurricane Irene and Sandy.
“People go through stuff all the time during their lives, and we’re there to help them, provide them referrals or the guidance in crisis intervention service they may need,” said Caruso.
Annette Buckley, program manager of Specialized Services, said data is collected through a phone system and database, both of which communicate to each other. They record every call in an internal database, which saves the referrals, as well as collects demographic information.
“Our calls are anonymous, so each time a person calls, it’s a unique call,” said Buckley. “We don’t keep track of who is calling and how many times this person has called us because it is anonymous.”
Caruso added some programs like housing, emergency mobile crisis intervention and the financial stability does collect information about the client during the call. Afterward, 2-1-1 shares the data with the provider community once the caller gives permission to do so.
Monica Bastos, a senior contact specialist who has worked at 2-1-1 for 18 years, uses a database that verifies, checks and enters data for all the service providers. Contact specialists like Bastos help maintain all of those referrals so when 2-1-1 receives a call, that information is up-to-date. The database currently houses 48,000 programs in the state.
Bastos said there is never a typical day at 2-1-1.
“When you make yourself available on the phone, you just never know what kind of call you’re going to get,” said Bastos, adding how she has seen technology improved over the years. “It could be anything simple from a food pantry to a…suicide call that may require 911 intervention.”
Bastos added a huge part of their job at 2-1-1 is assessment to reassure callers who are facing a disaster that they are okay.
“It’s really important that we just do our assessment and screening to really figure out what they may be in need of,” said Bastos, adding how staff tries to help de-escalate the situation for callers in need of a service. “We’re trying to pick up on things that maybe other people wouldn’t.”
During Fiscal Year 2013, 2-1-1 received 8,744 service requests for Bristol, followed by 1,894 from Plainville, 1,105 from Plymouth, and 337 from Burlington, according to data provided by United Way of West Central Connecticut. The top requests for services in that year were utilities and heat, outpatient mental health care, public assistance programs, and housing/shelter as well as financial assistance. The top agency referrals in FY 13 included Connecticut Department of Social Services (DSS), Wheeler Clinic, Bristol Community Organization Energy Assistance Program, and Saint Vincent DePaul Mission of Bristol, as well as Operation Fuel.
Osuch said those requests for services have changed over the years, as they were primarily for basic needs, such as housing, shelter and energy assistance, but now they have expanded to mental health care services. During FY 2013, there were a total of 1,208 requests for outpatient mental health care services in the west central Connecticut area alone (Bristol, Plainville, Plymouth, and Burlington). Statewide, FY 2013 saw 41,763 service requests for those services.
“While they are still the top requests…mental and behavioral health care needs have arisen significantly in the last few years,” said Osuch.
Osuch attributed some of the high number of requests for mental health care services to the economy.
“When you have difficult economic conditions, people’s mental health certainly suffers, and at the same time there’s greater awareness of services for mental and behavioral health, so people are more willing now to ask for help,” said Osuch.
Caruso said calls for outpatient mental health care services have continued to top the list overall statewide, noting an increase in those calls after the sudden death of actor Robin Williams.
Caruso added 2-1-1 receives a high number of calls for certain services during a particular time of the year. For instance, 2-1-1 will receive a high number of calls for services in utilities, energy assistance, and housing around September. Currently, 2-1-1 has seen an increase in housing related calls, since it has become a statewide coordinated intake for housing and shelter-related needs.
Looking back on changes or trends of service requests over the years, Caruso said people now have called for many needs, not just for utility assistance or shelter.
“It’s more than one need,” said Caruso.
In addition, 2-1-1 collects data for the top unmet needs. During FY 13, the top unmet needs included temporary financial assistance, rental deposit assistance, and rent payment assistance to name a few.
“When people get into a financial bind and they need help, that is a difficult thing to address,” said Osuch, adding how some people may not have met some guideline restrictions for financial assistance programs. “All of the unmet needs are related to financial needs.”
For more information, visit 211ct.org.