The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, May 09, 2014

Call 211: phone service offers many avenues of help

By The Building Tradesman

(By Teri Banas, Michigan 2-1-1)

What’s true in the building trades is true in the helping professions. Success comes with using the right tools. Today, the Michigan 2-1-1 information and referral service is the right tool for getting people connected to community-based agencies that help solve problems.

Supported by contributions to community United Ways, Michigan 2-1-1 is a free, confidential service that links callers and online users to thousands of different programs and services for people seeking answers anywhere in Michigan.

A call or online search with Michigan 2-1-1 can produce answers to medical questions, tax help, job training, foreclosure prevention programs, addiction services, affordable housing and shelters, utility assistance, prescription drugs, help with food or clothing, and locally based programs whether for aging parents or preschool children.

Since 2004, the statewide system has grown and today includes information about 30,000 different health and human service programs across nearly 8,000 agencies, said Michigan 2-1-1 Executive Director Tom Page.

“During the past winter’s ice storms, we offered thousands of callers information about utility help, warming centers and other related needs,” Page said.  “Our contact centers stayed on top of what was happening minute by minute in communities, and helped to create a bridge to agencies and companies that could help.”

Services are delivered through an efficient call routing system with specialized, up-to-date federal, state and local program databases housed in a single, searchable statewide database. Professionally trained contact specialists take calls and answer online contacts from eight regional contact centers.  Each center is nationally accredited, endorsed by the Michigan Alliance of Information and Referrals Systems, and overseen by the Michigan Public Service Commission.

This year, years of planning have resulted in major changes to the operation of Michigan 2-1-1 with the consolidation of all regional databases.   Later this month, a combined Michigan 2-1-1 website serving each region of the state will launch, Page said.

Besides serving as a central hub for community services and supports, Michigan 2-1-1 is also an important resource for people willing to donate their time and talent, said Bob Cramer, Director of Labor, Community Services for the Michigan Association of United Ways.

“Building trades members are generous donors of their time and talents with the tools of their trade,” Cramer said.  “When someone needs plumbing, heating and air conditioning, a ramp built, they step up and offer all kinds of volunteer hours and in-kind contributions.  Michigan 2-1-1 is a good source for connecting volunteers to those who could use a hand.”

Conversely, Cramer said members of the building trades shouldn’t hesitate to call Michigan 2-1-1 when searching for help, themselves.  “Whether it’s information about food assistance during temporary periods of unemployment or free or low-cost child care and preschool resources anytime, Michigan 2-1-1 can get you connected,” he said.

At a national level, the recent recession has resulted in a significant unemployment and increased use of health and human services. Unsurprisingly, Michigan 2-1-1 contact centers have seen a 24 percent increase in contacts, reaching 580,000 contacts a year. One in three contacts seek help with basic housing and utility supports. Other top categories of need include health care, food and meals, and individual and family community.

Another aspect of Michigan 2-1-1’s service is the tracking of needs that cannot be met. Providing reliable data and information about service gaps and needs helps improve community offerings.  “We know our service helps people and the communities they live in,” Page said.