Who you gonna call? Call 2-1-1

During our Economic Opportunity research, a pervasive challenge made itself known early on:

Connecting the community to services is both incredibly difficult and important.

Connecting someone to the right service means connecting them to a safe place to sleep at night, to health care, to legal representation, to employment resources, etc. What good is a service if nobody knows about it?

In 2015 the United Way took the first step to address this challenge and created 211 CNY (named after its simple dial in code: 2-1-1). This service became operational across five contiguous counties (it serves Onondaga, Oswego, Jefferson, Lewis, and St. Lawrence Counties), and provides 24/7, consistent, and informed resource provider referrals to callers.  

We took a trip to 211 CNY and met with Katie White, a Resource Specialist, who explained the qualifications of 211 call-takers:

  • Many call-takers have backgrounds in mental health services.

  • Every call-taker receives training on an in-house database with over 1,500+ human service agencies (more on this in a second!).

  • Every call-taker goes through forty-five hours of active listening training.

Katie walked us through some of the scenarios that call-takers are trained to respond to, many of which are crises.

As most people can attest to… crises are messy. Call-takers are charged with sorting through what is often a mass of interwoven challenges to identify the priority problems: “those that need to be addressed right now.”

211 call takers doing hotline basic training activities.

211 call takers doing hotline basic training activities.

Putting the power of active listening to the test, call-takers untangle a caller’s crises, parsing out what needs to happen today, and what can wait until tomorrow. (They even have a translation service with access to 150 languages to assist non-English speakers.) Using the AIRS/211 LA County Taxonomy System, call-takers break down the caller’s need. They start broad: is it a basic need, a criminal justice need, an education need, a healthcare need, etc? From there they narrow down until they get to the specific, actionable, sometimes critical, immediate need of the caller. The figure below is an example of how this narrowing process works.

Each need along the hierarchy has local service providers assigned to it. A database of over 1,500 agencies allows call-takers to hand callers off to the top three service providers based upon:

  1. The best fit for the caller’s need.

  2. The accessibility/proximity of the service provider to the caller.

In order to provide their service, Katie and her staff tirelessly update agency information. Keeping up-to-date agency information is critical. 211 strives to build a caller base by building a reputation as an informed and reliable link between the community and its services, but they need help. If call-takers provide dated or irrelevant information, they’ll lose community standing and, even worse, the callers will be left in the lurch.

Although 211 staff have become apt researchers, keeping tags on every service provider across the five county area is beyond difficult. Service providers who contact CNY 211 to provide updated information play a critical role in enriching this vital service.

In our conversations about the challenges of living in poverty, community members have consistently noted that they need help navigating the human service landscape. 211 is an ideal resource to address this challenge, and as shown in the figure above, has been utilized since its inception. By supporting and promoting 211, our community can help grow a service that connects our neighbors to the services they need - services that can mean the difference between a barrier and an opportunity.

Agencies wishing to add their organization to the 211 CNY database can contact staff at (315) 251-1400 ext. 147 or email at 211cny@contactsyracuse.org