National 211 Day
A report on life in Austin: Does anyone even know about 2-1-1?
Well, some people must. United Way just released its 2011 Community Needs and Trends (CRT) Report. It tells us a lot about the state of the community we live in. This year it shows that demand for dial-up social services in the Capital Area region has increased in all but two of its operating years and shows no signs of slowing.
For the uninitiated: dialing 2-1-1 connects people to the UW Navigation Center, an automated directory service that helps citizens find assistance with health care, child care, employment, housing and other basic needs. The service began in Georgia in 1997, thanks to United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta, and has since expanded to a coverage area of more than 260 million Americans across all 50 states.
The 2011 CRT Report indicates that 2-1-1 assisted with 376,310 inbound requests in the Capital Area region last year. During the Texas wildfires in 2011, 2-1-1 functioned as an ad-hoc disaster response center, fielding more than 300 distress calls from affected area residents in the first week of the aftermath. Overall requests for assistance in Travis and surrounding counties increased by 15 percent compared to data collected in 2010.
If average citizens connected to extraordinary information resources on a regular basis don’t have 2-1-1 on their radar, how is awareness of these services expected to reach the segments of the population who truly need them?
“Callers often call for a basic need, such as food,” says Kay Euresti Garza, vice president of the UW Navigation Center, “and during the call our staff learn that they may have other underlying needs, such as loss of employment or a health crisis.”
Navigation Center operators are trained to help people prioritize their needs and construct a method for targeted, comprehensive assistance. Let’s take a look some of the social services available through the Navigation Center’s hotline.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps Austinites put food on the table. Nearly any local grocery accepts swipes from the SNAP benefits card, and these last four years have seen major strides in a nationwide initiative to bring SNAP assistance to farmer’s markets. In fact, Austin’s Sustainable Food Center plans to offer a dollar-for-dollar matching program to SNAP recipients at the upcoming year-round market opening on East 51st and 183.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) provides cash-in-hand assistance to families who have lost their principal source of income. The program is restricted to households that care for dependent children, and comes with employment provisions designed to restore independent earnings to the family as soon as can be done.
The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) provides matching funds for health insurance to families with children. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed a bill to expand the program to its current coverage rate of more than 10 million children nationwide, including 533,000 young Texans.
Along with these and other state-sponsored programs, 2-1-1 connects needy individuals in Austin with housing assistance, crisis counseling, substance abuse treatment and assisted living services offered by non-governmental agencies. United Way of Central Texas even offers volunteer income tax assistance to households earning less than $50,000 annually. Last year, according to the 2011 CNT Report, UW Community Tax Centers saved 16,927 clients almost $30,000,000 in refunds and more than $11,000,000 in earned income credits.
With all these avenues for support available to our citizens, how is it that many common predicaments of urban life persist in our homes and streets? How is it that members of households on the borderline continue to succumb to the pressures of poverty and join the dispossessed ranks of our city’s homeless and lawless?
Let’s return to the question in the title of the article. How many Austin residents are aware that such a comprehensive service as the UW Navigation Center even exists? If average citizens connected to extraordinary information resources on a regular basis don’t have 2-1-1 on their radar, how is awareness of these services expected to reach the segments of the population who truly need them?
In 1998, United Way Worldwide designated February 11 as National 2-1-1 Day. This year’s observance also marks the 10th operating year of 2-1-1 Texas, which has fielded more than 1,600,000 calls from Austin area residents since its founding. National 2-1-1 Day exists to help spread the word about the UW Navigation Center and its role in the social service community, and awareness of assistance options may be more important now than ever.
The old adage runs that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and 2-1-1 can direct needy citizens to organizations that offer prevention by the cupful. Homelessness and property crime, two measurable difficulties faced by our city, tend to be last resorts for people whose unmet needs have driven them to abject desperation.
Although the organizations affiliated with 2-1-1 can’t extend help to every caller in need, spreading awareness of the service and its benefits can go a long way toward reducing urban struggles in Austin. This year, celebrate National 2-1-1 Day by getting the word out. Talk about it, blog about it, call it and see for yourself. You might be surprised at just how much help can be found when you know where to look.
The UW Navigation Center is a free, confidential, multilingual service available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, that can be reached by dialing 2-1-1 or toll-free at 1-877-541-7905. Learn more about 2-1-1 and search for services online at the United Way Capital Area 2-1-1 Texas web portal.