‘211’ service flips on switch across district

Peggy Revell

District residents can now dial 2-1-1 to access information on social, community, health, and government services available to them.
“All the residents of the Rainy River District who fall under the umbrella of the Rainy River District Social Services Administration Board will be able to, as of [Monday], get answers and/or referrals to just about any question that a citizen can think of asking related to who does what, where it happens, and how do I get to it,” DSSAB chair Michael Lewis said at the official launch Monday afternoon at the Fort Frances Library Technology Centre.
The arrival of 211—also available online at www.211north.ca­—comes as the service expands across the province.
It has been made possible locally due to a partnership between the DSSAB, Northwest Community Legal Clinic, and the Lakehead Social Planning Council, which operates 211 for the Northern Region.
“People call 211 for a lot of reasons,” said Marie Klassen, director of services with the LSPCC.
“Some simply need a phone number to a community program while others call because they need to talk over a program,” she noted.
“Every call is different.
“We hear from senior citizens looking for home support to live independently,” Klassen cited. “We hear from the homeless looking for shelter and perhaps a place to get out of the cold or have a hot meal.
“We hear from families facing evictions and needing housing options.”
Klassen added it’s not uncommon to hear from a laid-off worker wanting to find out about employment insurance or the possibilities of re-training, or a parent asking where to get food for their families.
“As well, we’ve had calls from concerned neighbours trying to help a friend in an abusive relationship, or a person feeling stressed and suicidal,” she said.
Calls to 211 North are free, anonymous, and confidential, stressed Klassen.
And when services can’t be found, she said these needs are documented and used to determine where there may be gaps in local programs and services—information that is passed along to the participating community.
“Everyone who we’ve encountered along the way, once you tell them what 211 is about, has been really supportive,” said Trudy McCormick, executive director of the Northwest Community Legal Clinic, which will be working to keep information in the 211 database up to date.
Calls to 211 always will connect a person with another live person, noted McCormick.
During office hours, calls will be directed to a certified information and referral specialist in Thunder Bay.
After-hours calls are directed to a call centre in Toronto because McCormick said there isn’t enough demand yet in the north to have funding for a 24-hour service.
And while 211 is helpful to individuals, it also is useful for service providers looking to connect their clients with more services they are in need of, she noted.
“Instead of sending someone away to make three or four or five more calls or stops, and get lost in referral fatigue, I can actually [use 211] to hook somebody up to information that they need, whether it’s through that live phone call to someone in Thunder Bay or looking online,” McCormick explained.
“Many of us, at various points in our lives, do need access to some level of assistance, some level of navigation, in order to cope with the day-to-day challenges; some of the bumps on the road that might occur,” Bill Morris, executive director of Ontario 211 Services Corp., said at Monday’s launch.
“And that’s what 211 is really designed to do,” he noted. “It’s designed to cut through some of the trees that some people sometimes find.
“Very often, people who need service don’t know where to begin to look.”
“Leveraging the brilliance” of 9-1-1, 211 is meant to help the public navigate the human services sector, which is far more diverse than the emergency services one, Morris explained.
“Our database in Ontario currently contains 56,000 different services and programs—just to give you an idea of the breadth of that entire sector.”
As well, he said those people accessing services often have complex needs, citing the example of someone calling 211 for information on accessing a local food bank.
“We’ll certainly give them the information about the food bank, but chances are they have a whole lot more going on in their life than just where that next meal is coming from,” Morris remarked.
“They may need job re-training, they may need housing assistance.
“Some other supports in order to ensure that they can be successful.”
Meanwhile, Klassen noted the volume of calls to 211 North continues to grow as more people find they are in need of assistance during this harsh economic climate and high unemployment period.
Last year, 211 North served a population of 250,000 and responded to more than 21,000 calls.
Already in 2010, they have seen a 35 percent increase in call volume.
And the quality of the 211 service is something both Morris and Klassen stressed.
“Your community will be extremely well served by 211,” Morris pledged. “We take the quality of service very, very seriously.”
“In the past year, we’ve won a significant award for the quality of that service,” he noted.
“Indeed, 91 percent of the people who were surveyed rated our service as either excellent or very good.”
Meanwhile, staff at 211 North have been trained extensively, said Klassen, and professionally accredited through the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems.
“I’m talking about this because I really hope that this information offers our partners and users of 211 a sense of confidence in the quality of service we provide,” she remarked.
Morris said the idea of 211 began back in 1997 in Atlanta, Ga. Since then, very much spearheaded and supported by the United Way, it has grown so that in North America, close to 300 million people have access to it.
“So in a very, very short period of time, that great idea took root and has flourished,” he enthused.
“Right now we’re in a wonderful growth period for 211,” added Morris, referring to the program’s expansion across Ontario.
Currently, 211 is up and serving 70 percent of Ontarians, with the goal of 100 percent by this time next year, said Morris.
“It’s an ambitious goal for us,” he conceded, adding this wouldn’t have been possible without the partnership of the Trillium Foundation, funding from the provincial government, as well as Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the United Way.