Callers with social service needs overwhelm new 211 system - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Callers with social service needs overwhelm new 211 system

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Posted: Thursday, February 9, 2012 1:40 pm | Updated: 3:52 pm, Thu Feb 9, 2012.

Just four months after a statewide 211 phone service began linking people to social service agencies, the nonprofit that runs the hotline has found itself in need of money to keep up with the skyrocketing call volume.

Arizona 211 started operating in October and has seen call volumes double despite a total lack of publicity, said Catherine Rea Dunning, CEO of Community Information and Referral.

About 72 percent of calls 211 calls are for assistance with utilities, housing, food and health care. The service also provides information and links for tax preparation, immunization, legal assistance, transit information and government programs.

The nonprofit expects rapid growth as more Arizonans discover the service, which is formally launching on Saturday and just now publicizing itself.

As many as 50 percent to 60 percent of callers are giving up on waiting to speak with an operator because wait times have grown so long, Dunning said. The goal is to have that figure be less than 10 percent.

"We're trying to be very creative and give people options, but without an increase in resources and funding, we can't increase our call specialists to handle the volume of calls," Dunning said.

Arizona 211 has a $512,000 annual budget for the call center. It's seeking another $400,000 a year from individuals or organizations.

Arizona 211 had a pent-up demand because this is the last state with a 211 phone service. Last year alone, Arizonans made 750,000 calls to the number, which went to a voice recording that referred callers to other resources.

"Being the last state without a 211, many people are moving here and are used to having that service available," Dunning said.

The largest donor to the call center is the Valley of the Sun United Way.

The recession has boosted the need for social services in Arizona. Mesa United Way President Don Wollom said that becomes especially challenging because those very agencies usually have their funding cut during a recession.

Wollom said 211 should make it easier for people to find help. The Mesa United Way doesn't actually handle calls for assistance, but instead provided funding to other agencies that reach out to the public, he said. With Arizona 211 in place, Mesa United Way will probably refer more calls to that service rather than to individual providers, Wollom said.

"One of the things I really like about the 211 program is it enables people to advocate for themselves, find their own resources, sort what they want to do, figure out who they want to call, rather than find some case manager in an agency because that gets really expensive to offer those services," Wollom said.

Wollom, who worked on Washington state's 211 in 1999 and 2000, said he's pleased with what he's seen so far with Arizona 211.

The new service should reduce the volume of calls to 911 from people who don't have emergencies but don't know where else to turn for help, Dunning said. Other states have seen 911 calls drop 20 percent to 25 percent with the introduction of 211, she said.

Arizona 211's highest call volume is 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Wednesday. Dunning said she's trying to reduce the pressure on the call center by asking people to use its mobile application or its website, www.211Arizona.org. The service can be reached at (877) 211-8661 for people in other states who need Arizona 211 instead of their own state's service. Dunning said that has proven useful for people who need to get help for parents or relatives in Arizona.

To donate, go to www.211

Arizona.org/Donate.

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