Local groups recommend greater support for '2-1-1'

Ten years ago this week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) determined that a scarce public resource, 2-1-1--a remaining 3-digit abbreviated dialing code--should be used for access to community information and referral.

Just as 9-1-1 connects people with emergency services, 2-1-1 connects people to important local human services agencies or resources.

In the 10 years since the FCC's decision, 2-1-1 has been enabled--at least in part--in 46 states. Last year, 2-1-1 centers answered over 16 million calls, connected people with job options, food, housing, education, counseling and much more.

Federal, state and local agencies rely on 2-1-1 as the "go-to" number to connect people with important human services from a range of private non-profits, government, and faith-based agencies.

Developed by United Way, LifeWays, and dozens of community partners, Central Michigan 2-1-1 began serving Jackson County in 2004.

In 2009, 22,450 callers from Jackson County received assistance, and the numbers are increasing through 2010. Many callers credit the 2-1-1 service with transforming, or even saving, their lives.

"Our call specialists talk to hundreds of people in or near crisis each day. It's our duty to help them navigate the system that's in place to help them find what they're looking for," said Ken Toll, of United Way of Jackson County.

For struggling parents, returning war veterans, newly unemployed workers, the elderly, and all other Jackson residents, Central Michigan 2-1-1 is there with real answers 24 hours a day, every day.

In addition, nonprofit organizations continually benefit through decreased marketing costs and fewer calls to their switchboards from people seeking help from the wrong place.

Despite the rapid growth and development, 2-1-1 still faces many barriers and limitations. Not all Americans can access 2-1-1. Certain communications devices--such as some wireless, IP and pre-paid phones--cannot reach 2-1-1.

Lack of funding and coordination creates many obstacles to quality 2-1-1 service such as longer hold times and mis-routed calls.

"Local 2-1-1 advocates understand these barriers and need the support and participation of federal policymakers to make 2-1-1 available to everyone," said Joanne Sheldon, of LifeWays.

Over 300 members of Congress agree that 2-1-1 should be available for all Americans.

A broadly bi-partisan group of 246 Representatives and 61 Senators have co-sponsored the Calling for 2-1-1 Act (H.R.211/S.211), a bill that would authorize a modest matching grant program to support 2-1-1.

The overwhelming majority of Congress understands that 2-1-1 needs to be available to all people everywhere 24 hours a day so that people can get the help they need in a natural disaster or a personal crisis.

National statistics mirror those of Jackson County's callers: the overwhelming majority of calls to 2-1-1 are about basic needs--food, housing, utility costs, healthcare.

Because of the economic recession, 2-1-1 is at the peak of its call-handling capacity. All Americans deserve to have 2-1-1 enabled and available to find help before problems escalate into major challenges like foreclosure, addiction or abuse.

Yet at this time when 2-1-1 is most needed in Jackson, it is also most difficult for our community to sustain with our local resources.

On this 10-year anniversary of the FCC Order to designate 2-1-1, we are calling on Congress to vote on the Calling For 2-1-1 Act before the August recess. 2-1-1 has proven itself as a fast, easy and cost-effective answer to help residents navigate the complex and ever-changing maze of human services--especially during this economic crisis.

The United Way of Jackson County is in its 75th year of serving the Jackson community.

It supports more than fifty different programs and initiatives that provide thousands of Jackson County residents the opportunity for a better life.

It is locally governed by a volunteer board of directors, chaired by Dave Mengebier, Senior Vice President, Consumers Energy.

LifeWays is a non-profit organization that contracts with a wide variety of behavioral health providers throughout Hillsdale and Jackson Counties to deliver person-centered services and supports to those with developmental disabilities, serious mental illness and emotional disturbance, and substance use disorders.

Published: Mon, Aug 2, 2010

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