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The 211 hotline is a quick link for non-emergency medical and social services

Not knowing where to turn for help, a homeless single mother named Mary made an important call after giving birth to her baby in 2020. She dialed 211, a social services hotline, which put her in touch with a temporary shelter.

Although she worked two jobs, Mary, who declined to give her last name, could not afford rent or childcare. But 211 operators in Lake County hooked her up with YWCA childcare, financial assistance in the form of a security deposit, three months’ rent and a landlord who would accept both.

“I never would have known if I hadn’t called 211,” Mary told a video interview with the United Way helping to sponsor the service. Now she has the only stable job and home. “I feel like 211 … has helped me tremendously.”

A similar 211 service recently launched in DuPage County, and plans are underway for others to launch early next year — possibly as early as Feb. 11 — in Chicago, suburban Cook County and Kendall County. 211, like the better-known 911 number for emergencies and Chicago’s 311 number for city services, connects callers with non-emergency health and social services.

The most common services are help with rent and utilities, but they also include free and confidential crisis counseling, disaster relief, food pantries, health care, insurance, employment and veterans services.

Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will are among the many counties that offer services in Illinois. In general, the state lags behind the rest of the country in implementing a hotline, almost half of it is still missing.

But once Chicago and Kendall go online early next year, nearly 90% of the state’s population will be covered.

In DuPage, Illinois’ second-most populous county after Cook, officials allocated $1.6 million under the federal Saving America Plan Act to fund the program for the first three years.

The 24-hour, multilingual phone bank will be operated by Addison’s consolidated dispatch center, which also provides 911 dispatch, County Board Chairman Dan Cronin said.

“We are excited to introduce another component of DuPage County’s approach to strengthening our social safety net,” Cronin said.

Anticipating increased needs during and after the COVID pandemic, DuPage officials also committed millions of dollars to strengthen the county’s social services. This included the purchase and renovation of the former Red Roof Inn in Downers Grove for use by PADS as a homeless shelter.

Cost varies by county. Kane County, which provides services THE WAY, has an annual budget of about $86,000. More populous Lake County, which handled 150,000 calls in three years, has a budget approaching $500,000, with funding from the county, local governments, foundations and individual contributors.

Calls have increased significantly since the start of the COVID pandemic. In addition to the telephone hotline, people can access services in many countries through 211 websites. Last year, Lake County had more than 57,000 contacts of 211 — most of them online.

But it often helps to talk to a 211 operator, United Way of Lake County spokeswoman Lori Nerheim said.

“The benefit of talking to someone is that they are trained navigators to get to the heart of the need,” she said. “A lot of people may call with one need, say housing, but it could be a result of domestic violence, or it could be a need for food. Having someone to help you is really valuable.”

Also using funds from the federal America’s Rescue Plan, Kendall County has budgeted $136,000 for its program through 2025, County Administrator Scott Koppel said. Outgoing County Board Chairman Scott Grider helped set up the program through the nonprofit agency, Keppel said.

The next step is to make sure people know about the number. Only 21% of Lake County residents were aware of the 211 service in a recent county survey.

“At the end of the day, we want it to be as memorable as 911,” said United Way of Lake County President Christy Long.

DuPage County Councilwoman Julie Renehan said officials expect 30,000 to 40,000 calls for help a year.

“211 addresses real needs in real time,” she said. “You should call this number if you don’t know who to call. We can all be proud of this.”


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