You’ve got questions? 211Info has the answers

by Joanne Zuhl, Staff Writer

On the 8th floor of 621 SW Alder Street, beats the pulse of Portland’s economic and social wellbeing. It is the headquarters for 211Info, the nonprofit referral center for community services. More than 100,000 people called 211 last year to get information on not only what services could help them in times of crisis, but also how to navigate the often unwieldy bureaucracy of government assistance.

Not surprisingly, calls to 211Info are on the rise — up 25 percent over the same period last year. Web searches on the 211web site are up 45 percent. Foreclosure related calls leapt from 267 in 2008 to more than 1,300 in 2009. Those calls spiked the day The Oregonian published new information about $88 million available to Oregonians in foreclosure. But the predominant needs remain with basic survival services, finding emergency food and shelter, and their coming from more and more people who have never called for services before. 211Info acts as the region’s frontline processing center for disseminating needs and assistance, and as such, is a bit of a canary in our economic coal mine.

It’s a tough canary, however, and soon to go statewide.

Liesl Wendt is the CEO of 211Info, which currently serves seven counties in Oregon, including the Portland metro area, and four counties in Southwest Washington. This year, 211Info received an $85,000 grant from Meyer Memorial Trust to support its goal to serve all of Oregon by 2013. It’s an ambitious undertaking that will nearly double the nonprofit’s $1.2 million budget, but it will leverage local information, service needs and the call center’s capacity to serve all Oregonians.

Joanne Zuhl: Can you speak to what your call takers are hearing from people and what that’s telling you?

Liesl Wendt: I think most significantly, the last two months we’ve been doing an experiment and asking additional questions when people call in, and one of them is if you’ve been newly unemployed or lost your hours in the past 12 months. And the other is are you a new caller to 211, and both of those are around 55 percent. So what that tells us is not only are we getting more phone calls, we’re getting more calls from people  who have never used us before. That was our sense on the calls from anecdotes from people, but I think it’s an exclamation mark that people have either done their internet research and maybe they’re new to social services and maybe they still have access to the Internet as a way to look for information. Maybe they’ve made a few phone calls and run into deadends and so they call us and really need help navigating the system.

J.Z.: So you think they have gone through several steps before calling you.

L.W.: For the most part. We know people are finding our number through word of mouth, Department of Human Services, employment department, Internet. So they’ve gone through some channels to get to us.

They want to know the five things they need to do to get their needs met. Well, there’s a lot more than five things you need to do, and it’s not a linear path. If there’s any trend we’ve seen it is that the social services are not an organized system unto themselves. So for people who are new to that system, it’s not as simple as here’s a phone number and here’s an agency for you to contact. There’s much more they can expect. You might have to leave messages, you might have to wait, you might have to show up with your children while you wait in line. So it’s kind of that reality check of how are you going to go through this process and locate services for you and your family.

That’s a unique piece of what we do that we probably haven’t talked about enough. We’re a phone number and people answer the phone, but they’re really trained to listen to folks and really help them navigate that maze of services. It’s a much more comprehensive services than people realize.

J.Z.: Can you foretell what to expect in the coming year or so based on what you’ve already experienced so far?

L.W.: About six months ago we really looked at the data and realized that the foreclosure calls weren’t going to go down, but rather they were potentially going to go up. As unemployment benefits run out, as people had tapped through their friend and family network, then people are calling and seeking help. And I think that the significance in the increase in food referrals for us, is that a lot of those people are experiencing foreclosure. They’re calling asking for mortgage assistance; we can give referral for a HUD-certified counseling agency, and then we can say have you considered applying for food stamps, now the SNAP program, because they might be eligible. But people will say they don’t want to do that, but that could help them free up some resources to help them pay their mortgage.

J.Z.: I can see where people dealing with a foreclosure, being told they might be able to go on food stamps or emergency food box programs, that must come as a bit of shock for them. How do your call takers deal with people who are, in a way, grieving?

L.W.: That’s a great term for it. There are people, particularly around food boxes, who have said “I organized the food drive at my kids school last year. I don’t want to go get a food box.” Part of it is that moment of listening and letting people work through it, just to be able to talk about it.

We’re not a crisis line, but it is that reflective listening. It’s that softening of knowing that it’s a hard time and having resources available for them. And in some ways it’s taking the label off, because anyone could be in that situation. The call takers, they’re on that front line. This is a moment in time and they need those extra resources, but it’s also a good lesson to say it’s not “those” people. It’s a community issue.

I think around foreclosures, with our partners that are doing the HUD certified counseling, that’s the message we’re trying to get out: Don’t wait until it’s the 11th hour. Try to be proactive and get the help now, because you don’t know what’s potentially available for you because you just hadn’t considered it.

J.Z.: Tell us about the expansion project with the Meyer Memorial Trust funding. What is that $85,000 grant going to be used for?

L.W.: 211 is trying to expand services across Oregon. That grant is to help us buy a more sophisticated software system, so we can track information with local partners around the state in a more comprehensive way, and to really upgrade our web site, so it can also be that hub of information for people. And we want to expand our statewide partnerships. Our goal is to have what we’re calling data hubs around the state, so we’ll have 10 data partners throughout the state who can manage all those social service information details in their local community, feed that information to us and then we’ll answer those calls here at our call center. So it’s a huge technical investment that will build up the infrastructure to make a statewide system really a possibility.

J.Z.: I would think that in taking on rural Oregon, you’re going to open the flood gates in terms of expressed need. Is that what you think might happen in 2013?

L.W.: I think for the rural communities, and I’ve been traveling in the past two weeks, Newport and Benton Linn, Jackson County, Lane County, each of those areas are a little unique, but what they share in common is there is no one spot for information. Lane County has a web site, but those other areas either have outdated lists — Jackson County had a booklet from the 1990s, as thick as a doorstop and hasn’t been updated. There are a couple of lists floating around in some of these counties. I think the leaders are hungry to know what they actually have and are those resources being tapped out. In a lot of those areas, it’s building something that we all think of as pretty basic — that’s a big step up. Transportation is a big challenge to get to resources.

Anecdotally we know there is need and desperation, but it’s very difficult to quantify it in most areas of the state.

J.Z.: What is the work you’re doing with Coalition for a Livable Future?

L.W.: They had developed a project called Equity Maps, where they looked at, in the metro region, how close were people in different neighborhoods to public transit to grocery stores to open space, things like that. And they approached us to say could we take the mapping we did with those issues and lay your social services on them. It would give metro area leaders a snapshot of where social services are across the metro area, where there clusters and where is the greater need. It could potentially layer on that economic trends as well: What are the demographics of those trends as well? Are there social services in the area where low-income people live, or do they have to take three buses to get to a food box agency, and then haul the food box back with their kids on three buses? It’s pretty exciting for us to think about livability and how we can help inform the conversation around livability.

In this region we often think of livability around transit and open space. We don’t often have the conversation about livability as it impacts social services. That tends to be a separate conversation.

J.Z.: Clearly, you think it’s very important to be thinking of livability in terms of social services and such. Why is that so important to the larger community?

L.W.: I think it ties into the foreclosure conversation because we’re much more than basic needs in terms of what we can do. We have resources we can direct to really anybody, and particularly around the foreclosure conversation, it could be anybody tomorrow. If any of us has learned anything over the past two years, it’s how vulnerable we all are and how confusing and complicated it can be to find social services. Social services are a part of our community, and if we incorporate them more into that livability conversation we really would be a community, as opposed to people who need access to social services over there, and that’s an entirely separate system. So I do think it has to be an essential part of planning. It gets to the notion that we’re in this region together, and we forget that. We think about it all the time with transportation, so why not think about it in terms of transportation and affordable housing, and transportation and food? Those things are connected, and we sometimes keep them in silos, and we need to not do that.

J.Z.: Can you speak a bit about the partnership with Street Roots?

L.W.: The Rose City Resource guide is an excellent companion to what 211 Info does. Our partnership with Street Roots goes back several years, where we get a copy of the Rose City Resource guide and we check that against our data base and we make any updates that Street Roots has identified and vice versa, and I think what’s powerful about the RCR guide, is its size, that’s its updated a couple times a year, and that people really use it — people who don’t have any other means, don’t have access to the Internet or a phone, and here they can find out information about basic services. So we see it as a perfect complement to the slate of services we provide, and we each get to leverage each other’s relationships with social-service providers.

2 responses to “You’ve got questions? 211Info has the answers

  1. Thanks so much for coming and talking to Liesl. Street Roots is an invaluable community resource.

  2. Michael Wendt

    looking for artile re: Liesl Wendt and 211

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