Heeding the Call

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Fire break out in the living room? Dial 911. Need a phone number? That’s 411. “Quality of life” concerns got their own touch-tone resource last spring with 311. And if local social service gurus get their way, another citywide hotline–one that covers everything from elder care to food stamps–may not be far off.

Advocates hope to bring “211,” a centralized community and social service network already in place in 83 cities nationwide, to New York. Still in the early stages of planning, local representatives from the 211 New York Collaborative, led by United Way of New York State and the New York State Alliance of Information and Referral Services, have been meeting with city officials to discuss its feasibility.

“If I’m looking for a particular kind of service, there’s no good database that’s going to give me that information,” explains Leta Weintraub, director of training at the Bronx-based Citizen’s Advice Bureau and a member of the city’s 211 Taskforce.

The 211 line would help expand the reach of the city’s 311 hotline, established last March. Though 311 already offers some referrals to social services, its primary function is to provide information: About 65 percent of the hotline’s queries are answered directly by its operators. What 211 would add, say proponents, is an extensive referral system to service providers themselves. “If you call and have a pothole, that’s 311,” explains Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, senior vice-president of United Way of New York City. “You call and say, ‘My mom needs a senior center,’ that’s 211.”

Apart from providing a gateway to social services, 211 hotlines elsewhere have also been used to identify patterns of needs. Connecticut, home to 211 since 1999, has used the hotline to help identify barriers to its children’s health insurance program. And the state United Way regularly releases “social barometer” data tables tracking what requests are coming to 211 and where people are directed.

Three upstate New York regions are already slated to begin offering 211 service this year, serving 5.25 million people in 26 counties, at a cost of about $4 million.

Bringing the system downstate would add to the city’s tangle of social service hotlines, but that, say its backers, is exactly the point. “We don’t want to supplant any of them,” says Barrios-Paoli. “Lifenet has real mental health providers on every call, and there’s no way we could even begin to touch that.”

When the city implemented its 311 line last spring, it merged the call lines of roughly 10 city agencies to form its 200-member staff, and has been slowly adding more. That effort ran a tab of around $25 million, roughly half of which covered capital expenses like computers, telephones and office equipment. “It’s a very complicated and intricate system,” says mayoral spokesperson Jonathan Werbell, noting that 311 fields about 30,000 calls a day.

Proponents say that having 311 already in place makes adding 211 a much simpler endeavor. “You’ve got an enormous infrastructure with 311,” says Susan Hager, co-chair of the state 211 Collaborative, “It would be foolish for 211 to try and build some behemoth somewhere down the road.”