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The 411 on 211info

Nickcolynn Nixon, a community information specialist at 211info, answers almost 200 calls a day from Oregonians at the call center facility on Northeast 82nd Avenue in east Portland.
Mid-county Memo photos/Tim Curran
Lead Information Specialist Raina Daniels monitors a call at the east Portland call center. In the last fiscal year, 211info answered more than 120,000 calls.
Katrina felt nervous when she first dialed the digits: 2-1-1. She and her family had been living in motels for almost three years. Could an organization called 211info help her find housing? “We were basically homeless,” admitted Katrina, who asked that her last name not be used. Within seconds, a call assistant answered. “She was a very nice lady,” said Katrina, 44. “She gave me six different numbers and all the numbers she gave me helped. I got applications from all of them and I'm now on their waiting lists for affordable housing.” Katrina is just one of the 13,000 to 20,000 callers that 211info helps every month. Each of 211info's 25 call assistants answer about 200 calls a day. “It takes a special person to handle those calls,” said Matt Kinshella, communications director for the nonprofit.

One of those information specialists is Arwen Okalani. On a busy Monday morning she sits in a small cubicle in front of two large computer screens, one for typing information from the caller, and one for the resource database in 211info's main office in east Portland at 1425 N.E. 81st Avenue, Suite 500.

The petite 27-year-old adjusts her headset as an incoming call beeps softly. “Thank you for calling 211info,” she says in a cheerful but professional tone. The woman on the line is in distress. She is on the Oregon Health Plan and has just learned it will not cover eyeglasses. She gets headaches from buying cheap glasses that do not work. Okalani diplomatically asks her a series of questions, starting with “Do you mind sharing your age?” The woman agrees to share her age, her ethnicity, her income, her zip code-data 211info needs to keep track of what groups are calling and what services they need. “There's a program with the Lion's Club that might pay for your exam and glasses,” Okalani tells the woman, then gives her the number. “There's also an online store that offers discounted prices. It might be useful to call optical stores and see if they offer payment plans.” Probing a bit more, Okalani discovers the woman also needs food and gives her the numbers for several food pantries. After she's finished, Okalani explains, “I've always wanted to work in community outreach. I like the people I work with. We're all here for the same reason. We like to help people be successful.”

Moving with the times, 211info has embraced every high-tech method to reach the public. While 211info staff answered 130,000 calls, texts and emails last year, there were over 275,000 visits to in the same year. People using the 211info website can access the same resource database that the center's call operators use-a bulging electronic cornucopia offering 8,000 public and nonprofit programs. Eighty-one percent of the callers are below the federal poverty line, 75 percent are female, and most are between the ages of 20 and 40, though many teenagers and seniors also call for help. “We've seen that part of our business explode in the last four years or so,” Kinshella said. Mired in the recession, many formerly middle-class people find themselves without a job. “People from all backgrounds are web savvy,” he said. For them, it is often easier to sift through a database and search it themselves than make a call.

Thinking that younger people might relish the idea of texting, the nonprofit started a texting line. To their surprise, all ages started using the line. “There's an extra level of dignity,” Kinshella explained of texting. “If you're at work, talking with your co-workers, maybe it's a little difficult to call. In this country asking for help, being low-income, it's not something that's celebrated. It takes a lot of courage to ask for help.” To back up his point, he cites studies that show people would rather text in emotional situations than talk on the phone. Another reason is that some people have limited calling time on their cell phones, but have unlimited texting, making it a more cost-effective option.

Most of the organization's calls over the past few years have not changed much: people needing help with rent or rent deposits, affordable or transitional housing, utility bills, SNAP (food stamps), food pantries, free or low-cost health or dental clinics, holiday assistance for meals and gifts, and locations of shelters. What have changed are the callers. Since 2007, it has been the “new poor, people who've never had to deal with the social safety net before,” Kinshella said.

Often such callers have unemployment benefits running out, and do not know where to turn. Since the service is free and confidential, people often call back for more information. A special feature is their parenting line, in which a Master's-level specialist answers questions about women's and children's health. Operators can answer questions in 150 languages, using interpreters. Six staff members are bilingual in Spanish.

Dan Herman, CEO of the nonprofit, said the organization's 50-member staff is mostly located at the east Portland office, with just a handful of locations scattered in counties around the state. The nonprofit is also using a few interns, as well as volunteers. They expect to expand the volunteer branch of the program in the near future.

“It's a great group of people who are passionate about what they do and they're smart too,” Herman said. “That makes it fun.”

211info started in the Portland metro area in 2004 as a program of the United Way of the Columbia-Willamette, still one of its key funders. The city and state, along with private philanthropies, such as the Meyer Memorial Trust, Oregon Community Foundation and Ford Family Foundation also provide funding. Today there is a call a 2-1-1 call center in every state, and 91 percent of Americans have access to one. Each is run differently, though independent nonprofits and United Way operate most.

In past years, many nonprofits helped with health and human services questions, there were too many separate numbers. “The trouble was people didn't know what was out there,” Kinshella said, adding that there were many 800 and 411 numbers floating around. 211info slowly started adding counties, and then last February it expanded to all the counties in the state. All the calls are answered at the Portland center, saving money by not have a call center in each county. It works because they have built good relationships with their partners in local areas who help them collect information. “We get daily updates about which agencies have energy assistance, so clients don't have to call all over the city,” Kinshella said.

To contact 211info call toll free Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. to speak to a community information specialist, or text: 898211 with your zip code to have a text interaction with a specialist, or visit to search the database.

Last fiscal year-from July 2012-June 2013-211info answered 121,623 calls, texts and emails.
The website received 272,578 visits, more than 80 percent were people using the searchable database-eight thousand health and social service programs are listed on the database.
211info assisted 9,419 callers in 22 languages other than English (using interpreters, 211info can provide information in 150 languages).

Top Ten Caller Needs
1. Electricity Assistance: 18,802 (10 percent)
2. Rent and Rental Deposit Assistance: 17,924 (10 percent)
3. SNAP (Food Stamps): 11,130 (Six percent)
4. Food Pantries: 8,918 (Five percent)
5. Shelters: 8,606 (Five percent)
6. Health Clinics: 6,642 (Four percent)
7. Dental Care: 6,632 (Four percent)
8. Housing Search Assistance: 5,163 (Three percent)
9. Transitional Housing: 3,556 (Two percent)
10. Holiday Programs: 4,381 (Two percent)
Total caller needs: 181,251

Circumstances which led caller to ask for assistance, based on information obtained through follow-up calls:
Un/underemployment: 29 percent
Fixed income: 21 percent
Uninsured/underinsured: 13 percent
Catastrophic injury/illness: Eight percent
Relocation: Seven percent
Change in household status: Seven percent
Loss of benefits: Four percent
Other: 11 percent
Eighty-one percent of callers are at or below 2013 federal poverty level ($23,550 gross annual income for a family of four).
Gender of callers: 73 percent female, 27 percent male

211info is involved with the following Special Programs:
Military Liaison: Collects information on military and veteran resources and reaches out to veteran populations and agencies

211 Family Info: Program for parents and caregivers of children birth to 8 years old in Clackamas, Multnomah, Washington and Polk counties. Through phone, text and email, a master's level specialist can be reached to discuss child development, problem behavior, education and resources.

Maternal and Child Health: Provides support and information addressing women's and children's health across the lifespan. Master's level specialist gives guidance on prenatal care, reproductive care, mental health resources and breast and cervical cancer screening support.

Health Care: Provides guidance on navigating the Oregon health care system and answers questions on Affordable Care Act.

Foreclosure: Statewide program assists people whose homes are in foreclosure, giving them guidance and available avenues is a free community website connecting people with affordable housing

Winter Shelter: During winter months, directs callers to winter shelter openings

Energy Assistance: Callers can listen to updated recording listing whether energy assistance is available from eight different agencies

Summer Food: 211info helps to market and promote summer food programs for schoolchildren

Tsunami Debris Hotline: Oregonians can dial 211 to figure out what department to contact to report debris or ask general questions
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