Community gets the 411 on proposed 211 system

There's no phone number in the white pages for a suicide prevention hotline.

There's no listing for emergency utility funding or the dental coalition and you have to thumb through the book page by page to find out who to call if you're a victim of domestic violence or are looking for a support group.

Few people know they can apply to the Community Budget Center for rent assistance.

Finding health and human service agencies in any community can be a daunting, if not impossible, task. Studies have shown that 50 percent of those seeking assistance give up because they can't find the resource they're looking for.

Linking residents to resources in the idea behind 211, a one-stop telephone call that provides residents a directory of all health and human service organizations available locally, in their region or on a statewide level.

"People often get frustrated because they don't know where to go," said Mary Robertson, director of the First Call response system in Larimer County and a member of the state board for the implementation of 211.

Robertson was in Craig Tuesday to talk to health and human service agency directors about linking Moffat County to a proposed statewide 211 system.

What is 211?

Like calling 411 to find a phone number or 911 to report an emergency, Robertson hopes 211 becomes a number all citizens think of when they're in crisis, need assistance or are seeking any health or human service.

Those calling 211 won't have to dial a myriad of numbers to find the option they're seeking. They'll speak directly to a trained information referral specialist who has access to a database of options and services, is trained to guide the caller through the conversation and refer them to the correct services and can transfer the caller directly to a crisis counselor if needed.

Calls to established 211 centers have ranged from a 17-year-old pregnant mother on the verge of eviction to an 87-year-old woman who was denied Social Security Disability benefits and was terrified by her lack of income.

"It's an information center and a way for people to access services," Robertson said.

In July of 2000, the Federal Communications Commission reserved the 211 number for health and human service information and the program started to spread. There are now 70 million Americans in 23 states with access to the information provided by 211.

"It really is spreading very quickly," Robertson said. "It's growing and people are learning it's there. I predict that in 10 years it will be an institution. People will just know to call 211."

The benefits

Not only does 211 link residents with the services they need, it will provide a barometer for the needs and issues in a community.

All calls are confidential, but demographic data is kept on the caller, their need and whether there was an agency or group that could meet their needs.

In Larimer County, referrals for emergency rent assistance were going nowhere because many of the agencies were out of funds. Officials there sought a solution after analyzing the data provided by the phone calls and realizing there was a problem.

"We can pull people together and say, 'What's going on?'" Robertson said.

211 also offers a single resource for those looking for volunteer opportunities.

"It provides a central hub or resources and simplifies efforts to collaborate -- especially in rural areas," Robertson said. "The benefit of 211 is you don't have to search around, you don't have to struggle to find the right way to get services."

The plan

An aggressive plan approved by the Public Utilities Commission will give every Colorado resident access to 211 within three years.

In the first year, organizers concentrated on areas which already had a comprehensive health and human service database and access center -- the metro areas and Grand Junction. There are currently nine counties with access to 211.

Now in its second year, part of the Public Utilities Commission plan calls for getting a Western Slope regional call center up and running in 2004.

The first step is already in motion -- a series of community meetings about 211. The state 211 board hopes to begin testing 211 in June and officially launch the service in September.

The eventual goal is to have seven regional call centers across the state. That coverage will give residents access to services outside their county if needed.

A local commitment of time, and eventually money, will be needed to make 211 available in Moffat County.

Because there is a budding health and human service database through Yampa Valley Partners, Moffat County is ahead of schedule for the compilation of data.

"Yampa Valley Partners and our Community Resource Directory is a natural fit for this 211 and maybe this will get it used to its full potential, which it isn't now," said Audrey Danner, director for Yampa Valley Partners.

Those attending Tuesday's meeting were enthusiastic about the proposal and willing to work together to complete a local database.

"We've been very impressed with the way you work together and the partnerships you've already developed," Robertson told the group. "We don't see that in many places around the state."

The cost

The Larimer County First Call 211 project will pick up most of the start-up cost of establishing the 211 system in Colorado. Once it's up and running, counties will expected to kick in for the service.

Funding options include state and federal grants, foundations, United Ways, local governments and contract or sponsors.

Robertson didn't have an estimate on what the service would cost in Moffat County, by preliminary figures indicate it will range between $1.25 and $1.50 per resident.

"It does need to be funded by the people who benefit from it," said Corrie Scott, director of the Moffat County United Way.

During the implementation process, an advisory board will get commitments for future funding.

Scott recommended that a three- to five-year funding plan be established.

There is federal legislation that commits $200 million toward the establishment of a nationwide 211 system, but its future is uncertain.

There has also been a bill introduced in the state legislature to allocate funding, so the need for local contributions is not yet known.

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 210 or by e-mail to ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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