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Southwest 211 wraps up busy 1st year

| Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, 2:01 a.m.

A three-digit number has become a popular one-stop shop for those seeking human services assistance.

In its first full year of operation in 2012, calls to the United Way's 211 Southwest hot line increased by 21 percent.

Of the more than 31,600 calls, the most needed services were housing and shelter, and help paying for or getting utilities.

“They go out of their way to help you,” said Norman Hall, 73, of Hopwood, Fayette County. He called 211 for help getting fuel oil to heat his home.

“Every couple of days she (the call-taker) would check back with me,” said Hall, who lives alone in the house he formerly shared with his wife and their five children. “She'd tell me, ‘Don't give up, I didn't forget about you, I'm still trying to see what I can do.' ”

Eventually, Hall was able to get free oil from several different agencies.

The PA 211 Southwest hot line is run by the United Way of Allegheny County.

The call center is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It operates on a $700,000 annual budget, supported by contributions from participating counties and local corporations and foundations.

The service refers residents to agencies that can assist them with things such as tax preparation, paying utility bills or locating a food bank.

Pennsylvania began its service in five counties on a limited basis in July 2011 — Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler, Fayette and Westmoreland counties.

Six other counties in the region are expected to be onboard by the end of the year.

To do so, each county must identify the best source of accurate provider and service data. That can be a county human resources department or a service agency, itself. The data is indexed so it's accessible by 211 call-takers.

Westmoreland County fully joined the network in January when the county transferred its Information and Referral service lines to the 211 network. The old service numbers connect to 211.

The Westmoreland commissioners estimate the switch will save the county about $126,000 a year.

Calls to 211 in Westmoreland County quadrupled, from around 120 in December to 560 in January.

“We saw a surge in calls whenever the county transferred their information and referral line,” said Dana Bauer, vice president of community investments for the Westmoreland County United Way. “Then we saw another increase in calls related to the efforts to schedule folks for income tax assistance.”

Bauer said 211 is not only a benefit to residents, but also to service providers.

“It helps planners and investors to understand why people are calling for help,” she said. “Many nonprofit organizations serve more than one county. Prior to 211, they would have to go to each county to update services and information. And now you only have to go to one place.”

The United Way of Pennsylvania and more than 150 organizations, as well as state leaders, had been lobbying for the 211 service since 2001. That's when the Federal Communications Commission dedicated the number for health and human services referral.

Ten years later, Pennsylvania was one of only three states, along with Arizona and Wyoming, that didn't have the service. Those states have since adopted the hot line number.

“We thought it would be very good for Pennsylvania to have a 211 system because, often, to get help it's not as easy as people would think,” said Tony Ross, president of the United Way of Pennsylvania. “There have been studies that show it takes six calls, on average, to get to the right agency.”

There are several reasons for that, Ross said. The agency might not have the resources to be able to help and the name of the agency doesn't covey what services it offers.

“The 211 service simplifies and provides a very efficient system to get to resources quickly,” he said.

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Greensburg maintains agency information for 211 in Westmoreland and other counties within the diocese.

Due to the organization's deep roots in the community, it serves as the “local feet on the ground” to provide information about new service organizations or changes at existing agencies, Bauer said.

Judy Modecki, who supervises information and referrals for Greensburg-based Catholic Charities, said the 211 service has proven its worth.

“(The system) shows whether an agency has funds to help people, the eligibility requirements and it even has maps so we can give people directions,” she said. “I think it seems to be really helpful.”

Jodi Weigand is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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