Calling 211 as hard times linger for many

United Way's call center continues to take thousands of pleas for help

October 15, 2011|Dan Rodricks

I sat with Kate Schulz and Stephanie Halcott, social workers with headsets, as they answered pleas for help at the United Way of Central Maryland's fifth-floor 211 call center overlooking Lombard Street. People who've lost their jobs and who've contemplated suicide, people who've lost their homes and had to move into a relative's abode, people who've run out of food and money — they all call this place.

More so, of course, since the Great Recession and its long, grinding aftermath.

Thousands of people have trouble paying their BGE bills, too. Turn-off notices in hand, they call 211 for some advice in keeping the lights on. Ms. Halcott took a call the other day from an unemployed man who received emergency assistance from a Baltimore church for his overdue utility bill, but he still didn't have enough money to avoid a shut-off. Ms. Halcott suggested several options, but noted that fuel funds at churches and nonprofits run out almost as soon as donors and grantors fill them up. "Ask them when they'll be getting funds again," Ms. Halcott told the man. "Keep the numbers I give you, and call them back."

The next call was from a woman who, while recovering at home from back surgery, had been counting on her daughter's income to help pay the gas and electric bills. "But my daughter's out of work" she told Ms. Halcott. She couldn't pay her BGE bills, the balance grew to more than $2,000 and the utility shut off service. So the woman, her daughter and her daughter's child moved out of their home. "We're staying with friends now," she told Ms. Halcott, then asked for help in paying her balance, plus the $150 security deposit BGE requires before restoring power. Ms. Halcott suggested a number of ideas, one of which seemed promising in light of the woman's medical condition: The woman needed electricity for a physical therapy device, and Ms. Halcott seemed to think she could get her power restored on those grounds.

"A lot of the people we're hearing from have never had to call before," says Saundra Bond, who's been supervising the operation since the days it was known as First Call For Help. The switch to the simple 211 system took place five years ago this month. "They are people who've never been in these situations before — no job, or unable to pay their mortgage or rent. The calls are more housing-related than in the past, and the calls have become more complex."

Calls that used to last about three minutes, with specialists merely referring someone in need to a program that could help them, now can last up to 20 minutes, says Martina Martin, a United Way executive who led the effort to get Maryland's 211 system established.

It's a 24-7 operation, with four call centers around the state. Between July 2010 and July 2011, the Maryland system handled more than 90,000 calls.

The other day, Kate Schulz took a call from Carroll County — a parent needing help with an 18-year-old son with mental health issues. Her next caller, a middle-aged woman in Anne Arundel County, told Ms. Schulz she struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. She lives with a relative but wants out. She'd apply to the government for help but said she was overwhelmed by the application process.

Another call came from a woman with two teenage children in Baltimore. She said she had a job but couldn't keep up with rent. She moved her family into a relative's home, but the relative gets a federal rent subsidy and is forbidden from having boarders. "I'm not supposed to be here," the woman told Ms. Schulz, who conducted a quick computer search of the 211 database and suggested a half-dozen housing options for the woman and her kids.

United Way's 211 specialists have information about 4,600 community programs at their fingertips. They search for help starting with a caller's ZIP Code.

A woman from ZIP Code 21217, in West Baltimore, called Thursday morning to ask for food. Ms. Halcott made an appointment for her to pick up a bag of groceries from a faith-based pantry on Baltimore Street at 5 p.m. Because of demand, the pantry limits what it gives to each family: one supply of food every 30 days. So names must be taken, online forms must be filled out. The woman understood the limitation. She understood the requirement. She went along with both in order to get the food. She spelled her name and specifically asked that Ms. Halcott include her middle initial on the form.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR-FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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