By Bobbi Watt Geer, Ph.D.
Raymond is a veteran and a senior citizen. He’s also legally blind. About once a week a neighbor stops by to read him his mail. They are stunned to learn that one of the unopened letters is a shut-off notice from the electric company. Kenneth was evicted from his home a month ago. He is homeless for the first time and has no idea what to do. Andrea was recently hospitalized for a hip replacement. Her husband won’t let her move back home after the surgery, so she’s been living in her car in the hospital parking lot for three weeks.
Each of their situations is unique, but thankfully they are not alone. Raymond, Kenneth and Andrea* are among 1.3 million people who reached out to PA 211 last year. The PA 211 call center network spanning the commonwealth provides a safety net that anyone in Pennsylvania can turn to for assistance. Requests come in by phone, text, chat or through the PA211.org website. Contacts are answered by a trained Resource Navigator, a real person who has a database of 80,000 human services resources at their fingertips. The service is free and confidential.
Regionally, PA 211 Southwest, which launched in 2011 and is operated by United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, now serves Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, Mercer, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland counties.
Every contact starts with a human connection. The Resource Navigator asks each caller their name, where they live and how they can help. Often, a call about not having enough money for rent turns into a much larger conversation. Does the caller have enough to eat? Are they able to pay their utility bills? How is their health, and do they need referrals to clinics in their community? More recently, in recognition that internet access has become a necessity for everything ranging from school to work to telehealth, Resource Navigators ask if callers need help accessing low-cost internet, computers or other devices, and basic technical assistance to get and stay online.
Resource Navigators provide contact information for nonprofit, government and faith-based resources in the caller’s neighborhood. A few days later, the Resource Navigator reaches back out to ask if the caller has been able to connect with someone, get the help needed and learn if there are additional resources they can provide.
The PA 211 network is a safety net and a safety blanket for people who are exhausted and overwhelmed by their circumstances.
It’s also an early warning system: every contact to PA 211 is carefully logged, providing a wealth of data about the greatest needs in each community, down to the zip code. That data is shared in real time in a searchable database online at pa.211counts.org. United Way uses this data to anticipate and respond to the changing needs of our community. The data is available to everyone and has enormous potential as a resource for nonprofits, government officials and the public. Earlier this month, the LA Times reported that, in California, some communities are using 211 data to spot emerging issues before they spiral out of control.
Running the network is expensive. Regionally, PA 211 Southwest costs $2.366 million annually, including technology, office space, training, equipment and compensation for Resource Navigators.
Who pays for PA 211? Pennsylvania allocates $750,000 annually, which is spread across the network of four PA 211 call centers in the commonwealth. Regional government contracts contribute about $1 million annually for 211 Southwest PA. A one-time $4 million investment in 211 PA from the commonwealth in the 2022-23 budget was both needed and appreciated, and those funds have been used to make a variety of infrastructural changes to address past capacity needs and enhance technology.
The remaining costs are covered by regional United Ways like ours because we believe in 211. It’s a bargain: Rental assistance that keeps a family safely housed is an investment in staving off far more expensive physical and mental health issues. Services that allow older adults to remain in their homes keep their social networks intact and cost far less than assisted living.
Just as valuable as the assistance that people like Raymond, Kenneth and Andrea find through 211 is the human connection Resource Navigators provide. Their empathy and expertise are available around the clock in whatever form—phone, text or chat–works best for the caller. Language is never a barrier: translation assistance is available in more than 170 languages.
We are hopeful that Gov. Shapiro and the Pennsylvania legislature will see value in investing in PA 211 and will increase the annual allocation so that we can continue to rise to the challenges faced by people across our commonwealth.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of these callers.