The 411 on 211 for the suburbs
When will phone collaborative launch?
Not 911, not 311 -- the "new one-one" is 211, and Illinois communities are far behind the rest of the country in offering it as a service to residents.
But maybe not for long.
The number is a free, nonemergency option for information on health and human service agencies, spearheaded by United Way. More than 30 states have coverage for 100 percent of their residents, as does Puerto Rico. Illinois and Arkansas are the only two states with less than 20 percent of residents able to dial 211, according to United Way Worldwide 2011 statistics.
In February, a group of 83 Illinois counties granted Bloomington-based PATH Crisis the right to provide 211 service -- which includes hiring operators to answer phones and also maintaining a database of human service agencies.
All of northeastern Illinois was left out of that group, largely because of the population density of Chicago and the collar counties.
Now though, David Barber, executive director of the United Way of Greater McHenry County, is working with six other local United Ways to create a similar collaborative across McHenry, Kane, Kendall and Lake counties. Barber is on the board of 211 Illinois and was the chairman for the committee that issued a request for information from potential 211 operators for downstate counties.
"People need to get connected with the organizations that can help them as quickly as possible," Barber said. "Too many times people get caught in the circle of calling somebody, saying 'OK, where can I go for help?' Then they'll send them someplace else."
Barber said 211 will help people looking for resources and save nonprofits time answering phones and directing residents to other organizations.
"There will be one place, and that will be 211," Barber said. "It gets people where they need to go the first time."
The feasibility of 211 in the near future is a very different discussion for the seven United Ways considering the regional collaborative.
In McHenry County, Barber has set aside money the past few years in expectation of the new system and is practically ready to go.
The Batavia United Way, on the other hand, has a relatively small budget that could be overwhelmed with the cost. Executive Director Jody Haltenhof said the board and local stakeholders need more time to consider committing to the collaborative -- a decision Barber hopes participating United Ways can make by the end of the month.
The United Way of Lake County will have the biggest job in launching 211. With almost half of the 1.6 million people in the four-county coverage area and far higher projected call volumes, startup cost is just the beginning.
"The bigger issue isn't just funding it once," said Jennifer Yonan, vice president of marketing for Lake County's United Way. "It's how to make it sustainable so there's funding year after year."
Yonan said the United Way is trying to connect local stakeholders from county government, health care and social services to brainstorm funding options. In the meantime, the organization is continuing to refine FindHelpLakeCounty.org -- a system that will serve as the foundation for the 211 database of service providers.
"We're making the existing database of providers more robust as this effort begins to generate some momentum so that we'll be ready to go when the funding is in place and the decisions are made so we can basically flip a switch and be ready to go," Yonan said.
The United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta launched the country's first 211 in 1997, and affiliates across the country have followed its lead. The United Way of Illinois was not far behind in connecting with the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems to explore the possibility in Illinois, but the initiative stalled.
A Human Services 211 Collaboration Board was established by the General Assembly in 2003, but it wasn't until 2009 that Gov. Pat Quinn signed the 211 Service Act into law, facilitating implementation of the system. That same year, pilot projects launched in St. Louis and the Quad-Cities, serving Illinois communities nearby, as well as Bloomington.
Those pilots have since become operating centers as the push for 211 spreads throughout the state.
A nagging problem
A community needs assessment in Elgin identified a concern residents there are not alone in experiencing.
"One of the biggest issues was people's access to services -- not that it's not available, but people don't know where to go," said Glenn Theriault, chairman of the United Way of Elgin.
Elgin's response was to launch the Kane County Guide about five years ago to connect people with resources. Theriault said 211 would be an extension of that work.
And in Elgin, implementing 211 is a far easier decision than in other parts of the area.
The Elgin City Council has been laying the groundwork for launching 311 since early 2010. That nonemergency number would give residents a single number to call for any city issue. They could talk to an operator, get a case number and track the progress of a question or complaint until it is resolved.
City Manager Sean Stegall said 311 is as close to a magic bullet as Elgin government can get for enhancing organizational performance. Since the hardware will already be in place, 211 is a relatively small next step.
"As long as we're doing 311, our ability to do (211) without a lot of additional effort or cost is still there," Stegall said.
In a similar fashion, the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago, which serves DuPage and suburban Cook counties, is working with Chicago leaders to coordinate 211 with 311 service in a single call center.
If the Elgin City Council approves a software purchase this summer, 311 in Elgin is expected to go live in July 2013, leaving officials to decide if it makes sense to process 211 calls with 311 operators.
The regional collaborative means participating United Ways of Elgin, Barrington, Central Kane County, Batavia, Fox Valley (Aurora), McHenry County and Lake County combine their purchasing power to get a better deal from a 211 vendor. That 211 vendor would then have the exclusive right to provide services, but would work with each United Way to set up a system unique to the needs of that community -- on the timeline of each community.
"We don't want to hold back any United Ways who are ready to move forward to wait for those who have funding issues to get going," said Barber, of the United Way of Greater McHenry County.
Barber said the time frame from the formation of a collaborative to hiring a vendor to implement 211 could take as little as three months, meaning McHenry County could be ready to go this fall.
Elgin could launch 211 at the same time as its 311 system next year. Then the sky is the limit.
The 211 system would give people access to health and human service agencies locally, but also let people tap into databases in other states. People could call for services they plan to use, or they want for their children or parents elsewhere.
Local college students studying sociology or psychology could get real-world experience helping people in need by volunteering at the call centers for class credit -- as Illinois State University and Illinois Wesleyan students already do. A single call center could serve the entire region or multiple call centers could be formed.
And data about the content of calls will be available to constantly improve service.
"What a great tool to be able to determine the needs in your community, based on what people are asking for," said Elgin's Theriault. "Not on what we think they want, but having a live person talking to a live person."