The idea of a free call center for people seeking health and human services information and assistance isn't new. In Lancaster County, United Way LINC did that for about 40 years.
But some things changed in October 2011, when LINC transitioned to a nationwide network and became Pennsylvania 2-1-1 East.
"Pennsylvania was the last state to actually roll it out," Toni McCuistion, director of the call center, said of the 2-1-1 initiative. The center was still taking the same calls, but with a new, easier-to-remember three-digit number. It also began using a shared statewide database instead of its own program and covering an area that eventually included six additional counties.
Now, two years later, McCuistion said the service is growing, as is awareness, and the new framework has enabled several valuable features, including tracking unmet needs.
"We've been asked that by funders and other organizations: 'What are you seeing?'" McCuistion said. When calls go to individual human services agencies, that information can be difficult or impossible to gather. But when calls are all coming to a central system and being logged, seeing how call volumes and requests are fluctuating is as simple as running a report.
Then again, McCuistion said, if what a caller was looking for isn't available, 2-1-1 operators are trained to see if other resources might be helpful for the person.
"If they're looking for rental assistance and they're not eligible, maybe we can help them with a food order," she said. "Or ask, 'Have you connected with your utility company to see if you're eligible for an assistance program?' Maybe we can get them a gas card or work clothes. That's what the staff is trained to do — see if there are other things we can help with, not to just say, 'No, you're not eligible,' and hang up."
Pennsylvania 2-1-1 South Central Executive Director Kelly Gollick said her center, which is based in Harrisburg, experienced a different attribute of 2-1-1. It launched the service in August 2011, and the next month Tropical Storm Lee hit. The Federal Emergency Management Agency told people to call 2-1-1 — and "we helped 400 people that normally wouldn't have known to call us."
Gollick and McCuistion both praised the fact that if a 2-1-1 center goes down, calls can be routed to another center — which could be somewhere else in the area or even in a distant state. Last year, McCuistion said, during Hurricane Sandy, a center in Colorado that is used to disaster was prepared to take calls from this area if needed.
There wasn't much fanfare when 2-1-1 arrived in Pennsylvania, and neither of the local centers reported a big publicity push for the new number. Nevertheless, they said, people are quickly recognizing it.
"The first year, we took about 1,000 calls just on the 2-1-1 line," Gollick said. "This past year, 2,000. This year, we expect to be up over 5,000."
The centers have been given much flexibility in implementing 2-1-1, with resulting divergences in programs. Gollick's center, also known as Contact Helpline, uses volunteers in addition to paid staff; offers emotional listening support; and has 24-hour service.
It went from the three counties it had been covering to the six in its 2-1-1 area immediately, having long been building relationships with them. However, Gollick said, it is still in the early stages of transitioning to the statewide database.
McCuistion's center, by contrast, currently offers 24-hour service only in Lancaster but has been increasing its hours over time and hopes by January to have it implemented across its area. It has transitioned to the statewide database but is adding counties in its coverage area only as partnership and funding relationships are established. At last report, Carbon, Lebanon and Schuylkill counties were not yet active, but it anticipated adding the latter soon.
Through it all, Gollick said, 2-1-1 administrators have been working together.
"We've built really great relationships across the state for information and referral. There's such a stronger network of professionals working across the state working together now," she said. "That has been a huge perk of this whole process."
In addition to its basic information and referral work, the Lancaster center has also agreed to have 2-1-1 listed as the point of contact for several specific programs. One is Community Homeless Assessment and Referral Team, a countywide program that launched in September and is being administered by Tabor Community Services.
"We turned to them to do this initial screening for us so we can really devote our staff time to the people that we're best able to assist," said Tabor President Bob Thomas. In the first month, he said, 2-1-1 did 690 initial screenings for CHART, and more than 480 people were referred into the program.
"It's very helpful," Thomas said.
• Free to callers
• Designed to provide one-stop information and referral on health and human services
• National: FCC set 2-1-1 aside for this purpose in 2000. It is now being used in all 50 states; Washington, D.C.; and Puerto Rico.
• More fully implemented in most other states: Coverage is at 100 percent in 41 states, with a national average of 90.6 percent. Pennsylvania’s coverage is between 80 and 90 percent.
• Less fully implemented in Canada: The U.S.’s northern neighbor has more than 56 percent coverage for its 2-1-1 program.
• Split into seven regions in Pennsylvania: The two local call centers are as follows, although the service is not active in all counties.
East (formerly Lancaster LINC): Berks, Carbon, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lehigh, Northampton and Schuylkill
South Central (aka Contact Helpline): Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Perry and York