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This Social Service Hotline You’ve Never Heard of Could Help Pinpoint California’s Next Big Crisis

This Social Service Hotline You've Never Heard of Could Help Pinpoint California's Next Big Crisis
Los Angeles Times
Feb. 1, 2024

Months before the 2022 baby formula shortage drew congressional attention, operators at the nation’s 211 social service hotlines noticed an uptick in low-income parents pleading for help feeding their infants.

A decade earlier, before the mortgage crisis crippled the country’s largest banks, 211 hotlines were jammed with people unable to make house payments.

Anyone monitoring the hotlines in more recent months would have seen California’s homeless crisis was spreading to other states, as callers were riven with anxiety over eviction notices.

About 50,000 people a day use 211 to connect with agencies that aid with utility bills, treat mental health and substance abuse, provide food and clothes and dole out disaster relief. It’s like 911 but for social services.

The United Way, which runs or provides funding for the service for about 90% of the country, sees it as an essential tool for solving urgent needs at the local level, including during natural disasters.

But people who work with the hotlines are trying to get more out of them. They want political leaders and the public to realize that 211 operators are often the first to learn about looming problems, before they cascade into national crises. It’s an early warning system that turns individual calamities into troves of data.

Unlike public opinion polls, surveys of nonprofits, court filings or academic analysis, the results come in real time, without much filtering intended to sway donors or government funders.

“This data is as fresh and real as midnight last night,” said Heather Black, who oversees 211 operations for United Way. “We’re always there. We have a relationship with very vulnerable individuals who trust us in a different way than they’re going to trust other officials.”

Lower-income Americans are often hit first and hardest by catastrophes that seep out to other populations, a sort of trickle-up effect. But the analytics revolution that has sharpened efficiency in sports, politics, retail and investing has largely bypassed their needs.

Matthew Kreuter, a public health scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, was stunned when he learned about the 211 service’s reach at a foundation meeting in the mid-2000s. Within days, he won funding to start asking callers in St. Louis public health questions about smoking and cancer prevention. That showed the potential to use the hotline proactively, but there was no central place to look at what was happening around the country on a given day.

A decade ago, he launched 211 Counts, an online dashboard that now includes call data from 44 states, allowing fellow researchers to spot trends. The public version of the system tracks more than 100 categories and subcategories of needs. Researchers have access to another 10,000 terms logged by operators, allowing them to track health, housing and other crises around the country at an even more granular level.

For example, the data show a strong correlation between people who need transportation with depression, presumably because older people who are poor and isolated lack the social network to get rides from friends or family.

Los Angeles is not part of the 211 Counts database because the nonprofit that runs the county’s service, 211 LA, opted to maintain a separate public dashboard. That dashboard was taken offline during a contract dispute in 2022 and was recently restored.

A staff of about 55 operators in L.A. answer more than half a million calls from L.A. County residents a year to 211 and hotlines devoted to reporting hate crimes, elder abuse, surrendering babies and other specialized crises. A 2019 assessment of the program found that 80% of callers are female and 80% are non-white. More than one-quarter are over the age of 56.

These figures reflect an average day. When there are emergencies such as the extreme cold last winter, the county used a Winter Shelter Hotline and 211 to direct people looking for shelter to resources. Callers overwhelmingly relied on 211 with operators handling more than 1,400 calls per day in February 2023 just for emergency shelter.

Other California counties are part of 211 Counts, Kreuter’s national dashboard, allowing his team to notice trends in the rest of the state. Santa Clara County suffered one of the biggest increases nationally in requests for help with housing, food and utilities in the early months of the pandemic, his team found.

Later in 2020, Santa Cruz wildfires pushed calls there to near-record levels, with most people seeking shelter or housing.

During the pandemic, people’s economic needs in low-income neighborhoods — for help paying for things like rent, food and utilities — were much higher than their needs for COVID-specific services such as testing and vaccination, one study found.

States with stronger legal protections for renters, including Nevada and New York, did not get the same spike in calls for help as those with weaker protections, including California, in the first two months of the pandemic, before the government imposed a nationwide moratorium on evictions, according to a 2020 analysis of 211 data.

Some communities are looking at local data, but not using it to adjust how they distribute aid. Rent assistance programs, which are among the most frequently requested programs, often fall short of funds. Few people call in to ask for home-delivered meals or adult education, but lots of programs provide them, according to a study by Kreuter and his team.

In some instances, communities have used the data to head off potential crises.

North Carolina call centers tracked a spike in calls from people living in hotels and motels in and around Charlotte during the pandemic. Many worried they were on the verge of homelessness. And it was not clear that they would have the same protections as apartment renters.

The United Way shared the data with other nonprofits that were trying to prevent evictions. That helped prompt the state’s attorney general to write a letter warning hoteliers that they risked running afoul of an eviction moratorium if they booted people who used the properties as their primary residence.

A spike in calls for utility assistance in one Michigan ZIP Code helped local officials identify dilapidated apartment buildings that needed more money for weatherization.

Despite the homeless crisis in Los Angeles, county officials have not used data from the call center to make policy decisions on how to allocate housing resources, said Maribel Marin, executive director at 211 LA, the nonprofit that runs call centers in Los Angeles for 211 and seven other hotlines.

“Nobody seems to be interested in seeing the big picture of what’s happening,” Marin said.

She blames poor funding and the inability to keep trained operators for the long hold times that have prompted nearly 1 in 5 callers to hang up before speaking with someone over the last five years, according to county data. The $7.8-million contract with the county anticipates up to 23% of calls will be dropped, a so-called abandonment rate, according to county data.

The county has looked at dropping the nonprofit that runs 211 and has conducted a review of the system. Fesia Davenport, the county’s chief executive, said in a statement that she is recommending an overhaul that would upgrade the technology and communications linking the county’s vast web of hotlines and services.