If 9-1-1 is the number to call for emergencies and 4-1-1 is for directory assistance, what is 2-1-1 for?

The 2-1-1 helpline was reserved by the Federal Communications Commission in July 2000 for assistance in finding social and human services information. The movement was spearheaded by the United Way, along with other nonprofits, and the organization currently runs or provides funding for more than 70 percent of 2-1-1 call centers, including PA 2-1-1 Northwest, which serves Crawford County and seven others.

To honor this growing service, Feb. 11 (2/11) was designated National 2-1-1 Day. By the end of 2019, the state and its United Way partners plan to secure 2-1-1 access to 100 percent of Pennsylvania.

The helpline provides callers with information on government and private programs and organizations in their local area to address health, social and other human services such as food banks, shelters, crisis intervention, counselors, job training, child care, support for those with disabilities, and natural disaster prep. Callers are free to remain anonymous.

For instance, when Erie was hit with a severe snowstorm in December 2017, PA 2-1-1 NW responded to 1,264 requests for help and were able to screen callers for eligibility for Team Rubicon snow-shoveling services.

“PA 2-1-1 can be a life link for many people,” said Terri Ann Wig, chief professional officer at the United Way of the Titusville region, the lead 2-1-1 agency for Crawford County. “It provides quick and easy access to human service needs in any situation. It’s much like 9-1-1 in that aspect. If you have a human services crisis, you can call 2-1-1, and they can get you right where you need to be.”

Wig described herself as “passionate” about 2-1-1, having worked to secure this service in the region since 2001. The United Way in Titusville and Crawford County Human Services have pledged three years of funding for the whole county to have access. She said the helpline served between 50 and 60 households in Crawford County last year, and they are working to increase the number of calls.

“Most frequently, it is helping with utilities,” Wig said. “That’s probably the biggest, whether that’s electric, propane, National Fuel, city water. They’re the ones we see most commonly along with housing and transportation.”

She also included a few stories of 2-1-1 local success with names changed to protect anonymity. For example, “Janet” briefly became homeless after her husband died, and she contacted PA 2-1-1 NW to help her with case management and budgeting for her rent and healthcare. The United Way’s Center for Financial Independence helped Janet revise her budget, and the Salvation Army assisted with housing.

“With 2-1-1’s help, I didn’t have to give up my home healthcare in order to pay my rent,” Janet said.

Another concerned “Alice,” 71, a widow who was raising three grandchildren on a fixed income. When she attempted to move to more affordable housing, her water heater ran out of propane, her car broke down, and she received a notice of her electric being shut off. Calling PA 2-1-1 NW for help, the resource navigator referred Alice to a local agency that agreed to help with her energy bills and car repairs. Once she moved, she called 2-1-1 again about agencies in her new town.

“PA 2-1-1 Northwest helped when I had too many financial setbacks at once and couldn’t cope,” Alice said. “Services are different in every county, and 2-1-1 is the fastest, best way to find them.”

PA 2-1-1 NW also has a text-messaging service and a chatline on its website, pa211nw.org, in addition to the telephone service. If there is a domestic violence or suicide risk, 2-1-1 resource navigators can do a handover to those specific hotlines, and if emergency intervention is necessary, they can also connect with 9-1-1. For those looking out for relatives living far away, 2-1-1 can also connect to resource navigators across the country to assist with services in specific regions.

“I’d like to see (PA 2-1-1 NW) grow,” Wig said. “Right now, we’re conducting a community needs assessment for our United Way, and we can get a lot of data at a 2-1-1 that shows what the greatest needs are and where sources need to be targeted and where there is unmet needs. For me, it’s very rewarding to see how it’s been helping individuals and families.”

Tyler Dague can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at tdague@meadvilletribune.com.

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