When Holly McKeown called United Way’s 2-1-1 referral line this fall she was at her wits end. Six months earlier she had agreed to take in a friend of a friend who was having financial and medical difficulties for two weeks until she could get back on her feet. Two weeks turned into a month, then two months turned into four months. Instead of things improving they were getting worse.
“It was having a tremendous impact on my family,’’ she said. “I really didn’t know what to do.”
That’s when Holly learned about the United Way’s 2-1-1 referral line from a friend. The free, confidential, multilingual referral line helps an average of 6,000 callers a month, many in the same kind of desperation as Holly. The 2-1-1 team connects them to resources, including food assistance, elder care, housing, free legal assistance, mental health services including suicide prevention, help with utilities and medical bills, tax preparation and more. The call center is staffed by a team of certified call specialists who are trained to listen to and solve problems.
“I got a wonderful woman named Marjorie who listened to my story and was so compassionate,’’ said Holly. “I had no idea how to navigate the system, I was really in panic mode. She went the extra mile. She didn’t just rush me off the phone. She really listened and tried to help me. Now I have a plan. It made all the difference. This is a very, very important resource. More people should know about it. Now that I know, I tell everyone.’’
Lini Jacob, Senior Vice President of 2-1-1 Hudson Valley, said that Holly’s experience is not uncommon. “Many people are surprised to learn about the call line and all the services that are available, including 24-7 coverage during any kind of public emergency.’’
Launched in 2006, the United Way’s 2-1-1 has grown exponentially in 12 years. The call center, located in the United Way of Westchester and Putnam’s offices on Central Avenue in White Plains, is a hive of activity most days. It receives calls from four regions: Long Island, Hudson Valley, Adirondack and Northeast, covering thousands of square miles of territory.
Call specialists have an expansive database at their fingertips that they can use to search out resources by zip code. They also have access to a service that can translate more than 200 languages from Swahili to Mandarin. Several call specialists are also fluent in Spanish, which is the most common second language spoken by callers.
“Our call specialists are expertly trained to handle inquiries that often start with one issue, but may lead to a myriad of other needs the caller wasn’t even thinking of when they dialed,’’ said Jacob. “By asking the right questions, we may find out that the caller is not only in need of food but may have housing, mental health or other issues. While there may be great resources out there, many people who need them, don’t know how to access them, and that’s where we come in.”
Mary Cubisino, who has worked as a 2-1-1 call specialist for nine years, said that she loves her job, not only because of the variety of calls makes it interesting, but because of the satisfaction she feels in helping people.
When a call comes in, she said, it is immediately identified by zip code so she can quickly search the database for nearby services. Some callers are simply looking for a resource, others require an advocate who will speak for them, help them navigate the system or fill out paper work. In some cases, call specialists need to jump into action to address emergencies.
“Calls run the gamut. One can be a simple request looking for a food pantry and the next call can be someone in crisis with suicidal thoughts,’’ said Cubisino.
That was the case with Kelly, a divorced Westchester mother with children away at college and no family nearby to turn to. Kelly had been suffering with depression for a number of years. Having had a very difficult day at work, and not being able to stop crying, she decided to call 2-1-1. During the course of the conversation Kelly revealed she was thinking of suicide. The specialist first made sure Kelly didn’t have a plan or the means to take her life and then connected her to a mental health hotline where she could further discuss her suicidal thoughts. The 2-1-1 specialist stayed on the line with Kelly while the hotline operator persuaded her to seek immediate treatment. Kelly then agreed to have emergency services come to her home and take her to the hospital. The 2-1-1 specialist followed-up with Kelly the next day and learned that Kelly had met with a psychiatrist at the hospital who helped de-escalate her feelings of suicide and together they came up with a plan for her that included counseling.
Cubisino said that when the call center receives calls from people contemplating suicide, specialists first assess whether they are in immediate jeopardy, and act accordingly, either connecting them to mental health services, or having a co-worker call 9-1-1 while they remain on the line.
“We ask a series of questions to determine if the person is at a high level of distress,” she said. “Are these just thoughts or are they going to act immediately?
What surprises Cubisino most, she says, is the number of older adults living on their own. “Many people are lonely and have no support system,’’ she said. “These are very vulnerable people. Sometimes they just need that friendly voice to talk to or someone to talk them through handling an issue.’’
That was the case with Joan, an 81-year-old Westchester resident who got lost on her way to an appointment at Westchester County’s Household Material Recovery Center, where residents can safely dispose of chemicals, solvents and other potentially toxic substances. Joan called 2-1-1, which handles the county’s recycling helpline, after accidentally making a wrong turn and ending up at the county jail, which is on the same campus in Valhalla. As Joan grew more frantic, the 2-1-1 specialist was able to diffuse the situation with a little humor, saying “Don’t worry Joan, I am on the line with you –just let me know when you get out of jail.” After a brief silence, Joan burst out laughing and thanked the 2-1-1 specialist for being so kind and patient. Joan not only managed to “get out of jail” she also made her appointment on time.
More often than not, callers are people struggling to make ends meet like one caller Cubisino described: a young mother whose family was falling behind, struggling to pay the rent each month. While Cubisino could not help with the rent, she was able to connect the woman to services like food stamps, WIC benefits (Women Infants and Children) and HEAP, a home heating benefits program, that helped to reduce the family’s other expenses.
Alana Sweeny, President and CEO of the United Way of Westchester and Putnam, said 2-1-1 is an important lifeline for people living on the edge of poverty. And that number is growing, she said. “Almost half the households in the Westchester and Putnam region wake up each day not knowing if they’ll be ok,” said Sweeny.
In September, the United Way of New York State released its second report on the growing ALICE population. ALICE, which stands for Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed, describes the thousands of people who are barely making ends meet because of a number of factors including low wages that don’t keep up with the high cost of living.
In Westchester and Putnam, about 40 percent of the population are in a daily struggle for stability. This includes hard working families who fall below the poverty line and those above the poverty line whose incomes are too high to qualify for benefits.
According to the study, in the metro area a family must earn a minimum of $88,000 a year (what the report refers to as the survival budget) to cover the basic costs of food, housing, transportation, healthcare and childcare for a family of two adults, one infant and one pre-school child. When taken as a region, Westchester and Putnam, one of the most affluent areas in the country, have nearly 4 in 10 households that are in a state of daily struggle.
The latest report, an update from the original one released in 2016, showed that an additional 30,000 families in New York joined the ranks of ALICE with low wages, depleted savings, and increased costs.
“A car repair, a cold snap, an outage that spoils the family’s groceries in the fridge, a missed shift to finally see the doctor can mean a further slip, a further slide into peril,’’ said Sweeny. “And our latest wave of research shows the problem is getting worse in our counties, not better. Our so called ‘recovery’ is happening as more and more families like this fall behind.”
GOVERNMENT, HEALTHCARE, EDUCATION PARTNERSHIPS
Ms. Jacob said that 2-1-1 is not there just for the elderly or those struggling to make ends meet. United Way also works directly with county governments, healthcare institutions and educators on several programs including those related to foster care, Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) assistance, recycling, Home Energy Assistance (HEAP) and other. In addition, 2-1-1 handles calls during disasters like the Mamaroneck/Larchmont flooding and Hurricanes Irene and Sandy. During Hurricane Sandy 2-1-1 answered more than 28,000 calls. By handling these services, 2-1-1 helps the county improve service and save money that can be put to other needs.
In addition, 2-1-1 is partnering with other government agencies and the private sector on new projects to save even more money. United Way’s 2-1-1 was recently chosen by the Centers for Disease Control as one of 27 call centers across the nation to participate in Flu on Call, a public health emergency response program in the event of a national flu epidemic. In addition, 2-1-1 call specialists are working with MVP Health Care to act as a clearinghouse for health-related calls and through the state’s DSRIP project are providing assistance to Medicaid members (both in and out of network) who are in need of community referrals and resources. 2-1-1’s Hudson Valley Region is also working with the Alliance of Network in Albany to reduce Medicaid costs by helping connect people with preventive services, so they can be healthier and, ultimately, reduce hospital readmissions.
Cubisino said that while she applauds the cost savings efficiency, in the end what matters most is helping the person on the line, with kindness, competence and humanity.
“There are calls that are heartbreaking… the problems that people have to face,’’ she said. “You try to help them with the most important needs first and then move on to the next one. I don’t think I speak just for myself, but for all my colleagues when I say that hearing ‘Thank You’ is the most wonderful part of the job.’’