211 help line available in Kane and McHenry, soon in Lake

Imagine calling a free number available 24/7 from anywhere in the state for all kinds of questions: where to pay your electric bill, how to figure out if your child is abusing opioids, where to get sandbags to fight flooding, how to apply for food stamps.

That's possible in the majority of the country but not in Illinois, which has the distinction of having the second-lowest 211 phone coverage across the nation.

In the suburbs, McHenry County has had 211 service since 2013. Kane County launched it in November. Lake County expects to do so in September. DuPage and Cook counties do not have it.

Overall, 33% of Illinois residents could call 211 in 57 of 102 counties last year, according to a 2018 annual report from the state's 211 board. Only Alabama fared worse, with less than 20 percent of residents with such service, data shows. Forty states have 100% coverage, including Wisconsin, Iowa and Indiana.

Some towns like Elgin, Schaumburg and Chicago have 311 call centers that assist residents with municipal nonemergency, information and referral calls, but otherwise, people mostly have to figure out on their own who to contact for help.

Calling 211 would make things way easier, said Gina Strafford-Ahmed, board chairwoman for 2-1-1 Illinois.

"Our drive is to get the state covered," she said. "The frustration is the lack of funding."

State legislators gave the nod to the initiative with the 211 Service Act effective in 2010, but because no state or federal funding has been allocated, efforts have been lead by local United Way agencies, she said. The agencies contribute money and cobble more from sources including local governments, school districts, nonprofits and businesses.

In Kane County, the effort raised about $128,000 for the first year and another $85,000 or so is budgeted for the next two years, said Melinda Kintz, executive director of Batavia United Way.

The agency worked hard to get the word out to residents after a "soft launch" in November and calls steadily increased from 152 in January to 185 in March, she said. However, few calls are coming from the northern end of the county, including Huntley, Pingree Grove, Carpentersville and East and West Dundee, so the agency is working on spreading the word there, she said.

Kane County uses a call center based in Bloomington. The process included establishing agreements with landline and cellphone carriers - an estimated 100 or so in Illinois, Kintz said - to activate 211 access.

"It's been a process," she said.

All calls are confidential. Calling 211 can be especially valuable after disasters, and people can call if they simply need comfort after traumatic events, she said. After the February 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, calls in that area went up by 40 percent, she said.

The Lake County effort raised $800,000 for the first two years, and the hope is to launch the service in late September, said Kristi Long, president and CEO of United Way of Lake County.

The higher cost is due to population size and the choice to hire a call center based in California that uses the same software as the local entities, she said. The call center has mostly bilingual staff and offers features like 24-hour texting, she said.

One major challenge is getting the word out that 211 is available, Kintz and Long said.

That's done by reaching out to municipalities, police departments, school districts, food banks, libraries, park districts, nonprofits and more, and doing advertising via radio, Metra and movie theaters, they said.

"Based on learning from best practices across the country, we are investing in a robust marketing and community engagement plan," Long said.

As for expanding 211 in the rest of the state, most lawmakers say they see value in the service but funding is scarce all around, Strafford-Ahmed said. Still, 211 would provide a valuable service to residents and eliminate costs for running the many information numbers in place for various state programs and agencies, she said.

"It doesn't make sense to me that it's not state-funded," she said.

Beyond 911

The Federal Communications Commission has set aside these three-digit shortcuts to reach special community services, but not all of them are available everywhere.

211 - Public, health and community services

311 - Nonemergency police, fire and municipal business

411 - Directory assistance

511 - Road and traffic conditions

711 - Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS) for the speech- and hearing-impaired

811 - Call-before-you-dig number arranges for utilities to be located and marked

911 - Emergency response

Source: Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission

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