Public Safety

211 San Diego, Here to Help

Everyone knows you call 911 in an emergency. And after six years in San Diego County, 211 has become pretty well-known too.

Last year, some 300,000 callers in San Diego County punched those digits seeking help for every shade of difficulty – financial, mental, physical and familial. On the other end of the line: a service representative who relies on training and a database of 1,400 local programs and services to connect the caller with just the right organization.

 “2-1-1 has established itself as the number San Diegans can call when they need help,” said Supervisor Greg Cox, who has long championed the local service.  “2-1-1 San Diego can connect people to thousands of services, and that has been especially critical during these difficult economic times.”

You might hear that it’s “National 2-1-1 Day” this Saturday. That’s because Feb. 11, or 2/11, is an opportune time to raise awareness for 2-1-1 lines across the country. The 300,000 local callers here show many of our residents are already aware of the helpline. But it’s doubtful the public really understands all the specialties and services of 2-1-1 San Diego, the local nonprofit that operates it.

Some of 2-1-1 San Diego’s locally unique programs—assisting veterans and active duty military, enrolling people in CalFresh food assistance benefits over the phone and communicating with the public during disasters—grew out of a partnership with San Diego County.

Since 2-1-1 San Diego aims to serve the needs of the community, it makes sense to work with similarly-tasked agencies, such as County government, to identify those needs, said the nonprofit’s Chief Operating Officer Bill York.

“Sometimes it’s partners coming to us and saying, ‘Hey, can you help us build this?’” York said.

That was the story with the Courage to Call helpline for active-duty service members, veterans, and their families, which has been available at 2-1-1 for about eight months. 

The service grew from the County’s desire to help our region’s large population of veterans. San Diego County’s has about 247,000 veterans, including 28,000 who were deployed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the largest concentration of such veterans in the nation.

With substance abuse, mental illness and unemployment more prevalent among veterans than civilians, the County wanted to make sure local veterans were getting connected with the help they might need.

In 2010, County contractor Mental Health Systems, Inc. and several local veterans’ organizations designed and trained staff for a  new program, Courage to Call. The service established a helpline specifically for veterans and active duty military. Veterans, who may be able to relate to the caller better than someone who hasn’t been in combat or the military, answer the phone. 

The County oversees and funds Courage to Call through the state’s Mental Health Services Act, and 2-1-1 San Diego contributed its expertise to help Mental Health Systems Inc. and its partners set up the prorgram.

Ultimately, it made sense to designate 2-1-1 the Courage to Call hotline number, said York, a veteran himself. 2-1-1 San Diego’s data showed that about 1,000 callers a month were already active duty military or veterans looking for help.

Six veterans are available to answer 2-1-1 calls from veterans and service members to help connect their peers with services.

The specialized military call line shows how 2-1-1 San Diego is a flexible organization that helps the County and other groups establish new services.

“They have truly been an integral partner with the County of San Diego in its ongoing effort to provide services to a growing and diverse region,” Supervisor Cox said.

In another relatively new service, 2-1-1 San Diego helps the County by processing CalFresh applications over the phone. A few years ago, with many households foundering in the awful economy, the County sought an easy, quick way for people to apply for CalFresh benefits.

People suffering economic hardship, people with disabilities, and families with childcare issues sometimes had difficulty travelling to a County Family Resource Center to complete a paper application. And they may not have had easy online access, either.

So, working with the County, 2-1-1 San Diego started a Benefits and Enrollment Department with specially trained staff who could accept CalFresh applications over the phone, using a telephonic signature. York said 2-1-1 San Diego was the first 2-1-1 line in the nation to offer this service. 

“This opens another avenue of access for our community,” said Sylvia Melena, an assistant deputy director with the County Health and Human Services Agency.

Since April 2010, when 2-1-1 started processing applications, some 3,516 households have enrolled through 2-1-1, Melena said. Others may have elected to do the application online, in person, or through the mail after learning about how to apply from 2-1-1 staff.

The local nonprofit also works closely with the County’s First 5 Commission. When someone calls, 2-1-1 representatives ask a series of questions that determine if callers have pregnant women or have children under 6 in the home. If so, the representative gives information on First 5 funded programs for health care, school readiness, parent education, and oral health.

2-1-1 San Diego is certainly geared towards social and health services, but it was its role as the County’s emergency information line during the 2007 wildfires that helped plant the digits 2-1-1 in the public consciousness, York said. Calls to the line doubled in the year following the fires compared to the year before, he said.

In 2006, the Federal Emergency Management designated 2-1-1 a non-emergency line for the public. Local agencies didn’t really know what that meant, but the County’s Office of Emergency Services and 2-1-1 agreed that the nonprofit would take public inquires and give out emergency information and assistance over the phone.

And then, less than a year later, the 2007 firestorm scorched 368,340 acres, burned 1,775 homes and forced 500,000 people to evacuate.

People called 2-1-1 in droves. In 10 days, 100,000 callers sought fire updates, evacuation and shelter information, road closure information, and all kinds of help.

The 2-1-1 representatives informed County emergency managers about rumors and concerns they were hearing from the public, helping the County focus the information disseminated through its emergency website.

The collaboration proved successful, and the County Office of Emergency Services disaster planning includes using 2-1-1 San Diego in a similar way for any future emergencies.

“It was a proud moment for both agencies,” York said

211 San Diego hosts a National 211 Day luncheon Friday at the San Diego Marriot Marquis & Marina. Last year, Supervisor Greg Cox was honored for his support of 211. This year, Supervisor Cox will present the honor to United Way. About 800 people are expected to attend the sold-out event.