Serving Families: 2-1-1 Initiative

Serving Families: 2-1-1 Initiative

By Elizabeth G. Donnellan, MEd, ABD 

You are a human service or psychology professional at a multiservice community agency. It is Friday afternoon, a few minutes before closing. You have packed up your papers and contemplate leaving when a client rushes into your office. The visibly panicked client tells you between breaths that she arrived home to find her children and things outside of the apartment building where they live. They were evicted for owing 2 month's rent. For the next hour, you call every agency and contact in your files attempting to secure shelter for the client and her children. It is very unlikely in this scenario that you will find appropriate shelter late on a Friday afternoon. Sudden homelessness like this can quickly lead to substance abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, depression, panic attacks, and suicidal ideation. What can a professional do in this situation?

New Tools

Years ago, professionals had to spend countless hours calling individual agencies and contacts in hopes of finding beds. Professionals now have access to more sophisticated tools to quickly collect information. A human service hotline initiative, called the 2-1-1 National Initiative, established federal funds administered by the United Way and the Alliance for Information and Referral Specialists (AIRS) for the development of social service hotlines. These monies paid to train and run a nationwide free community resource hotline available 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. The hotline is staffed by volunteers and paid professionals who answer both crisis intervention and community referral calls.

Early 2-1-1 Trials

The first 2-1-1 hotline was piloted in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1997. By 2000, four other metropolitan areas were included in the 2-1-1 trials. I had the good fortune of working the evening shift at a trial site in Hillsborough County, Florida, where I was a crisis/rape counselor. We had a suicide prevention hotline (as did most other cities) that simply absorbed the new community service referral hotline. We were specifically trained and certified as both suicide/crisis counselors and as Information and Referral (called I&R) specialists as a part of our 2-1-1 training. Data collected from all pilot sites indicated that call volume for crisis intervention calls remained constant while calls for information and referrals grew steadily each month. Professionals who called provided some basic data about their clients (only age and zip code of service provider) that helped to track community need for more services. This guided local governments in making funding dispersal decisions—awarding money to agencies that were providing the most assistance to the most needy.

One problem with living in such a large and populated county is that while there are many agencies offering a multitude of services, few professionals know their location, requirements for access, and availability of resources. It was frustrating working at the client service level without having up-to-date information about treatment/prevention/intervention programs. Clients appeared in our offices, in group sessions, and in front of the agency with the same plea: “But I am homeless TONIGHT.” 2-1-1 promised to provide the quick and accurate information needed by case managers and counselors alike. The new system enabled us to use the online site to check how many beds were available at shelters that evening in real time. We were able to connect families with services for all of their needs relatively quickly and, if the client agreed, we scheduled follow-up calls for the next day. In many cases, we continued to work on family needs across shifts (counselors were assigned to continue to research specific cases). 

Learning as a Volunteer

There were nights when I handled suicide intervention calls, shelter/food calls, domestic violence, teen crisis, and then was called back to counsel a rape survivor in person. I probably learned more in those 3 years of evening and overnight work than I did in all of my graduate school years combined. Students interested in working in any of the helping professions should consider volunteering to work a few hours per month at their local 2-1-1 line. In fact, in most states, you only need the equivalent of an associate’s degree to volunteer. This would be a great beginning for those of you earning your Associate of Applied Science in Human Services or those of you who have completed your first 2 years of study in psychology. Remember that even as a volunteer, you receive vast experience and free training. Best of all, you will gain valuable experience in handling crisis; very few social service jobs or graduate programs provide adequate training in this area. 

Professionals at every level of service should explore their local 2-1-1 line before using it (visit to see if the line is available in your area). Call the line to practice getting referrals. You will be asked for the zip code of the origin of your call and whether you are calling for yourself or a client. Providing this information does not breech confidentiality, but helps community planners understand social service needs. Human service professionals also refer clients to 2-1-1 as an after-hours line for emergencies. Psychologists, counselors, and Welfare to Work staff may also refer clients to 2-1-1 as a safe place to call for information and assistance when agencies and centers are closed. This initiative has proven to be one of the most effective prevention programs in our country. Now, you will know where to begin your search when your client comes to you late one Friday afternoon with immediate needs.