In a world where navigating social services can feel like traversing a labyrinth, 211 emerges as a guiding light. This vital service, powered by United Way, is a 24-hour information and referral service that connects people in need to the resources that help. Through a simple phone call or online search, individuals and families are connected to a lifeline of support, ranging from food and housing to mental health services and beyond. The significance of 211 cannot be overstated, especially in light of its profound impact during the COVID-19 pandemic and its potential to transform lives with the right funding at state and local levels.

A Beacon in Times of Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the critical nature of 211 as an instant link to health and social services. As the crisis unfolded, millions found themselves in unprecedented situations, grappling with job losses, food insecurity, and a myriad of other challenges. The response from 211 was remarkable, with a nearly 100% increase in connections to critical services in 2020 compared to the previous year, and a 150% surge in connections to food programs during the pandemic’s peak. This response highlights the adaptability and essential role of 211 in addressing immediate needs during emergencies.

High Need, Measurable Impact and Expanding Reach

In Ohio, the importance of statewide 211 access corresponds to an increased need for health, substance use, employment, and social services. Ohio’s unemployment rate is 4 percent, 17th highest in the country; the poverty rate is 12.6 percent, 17th highest in the country; and Ohio has 47.2 per 100,000 drug overdose deaths, the fourth highest in the country. Community members need ongoing access to vital health and social services to address these issues. The 211 number is easy to remember and always available.

The 211 service bridges the gap between community members and essential health and human assistance services, including aid in times of disaster, help with avoiding eviction, legal assistance, tax preparation services, job search support, and resources for food, clothing, and housing, among other needs. The success of this program is largely attributed to the skilled operators answer the phone who are trained to delve deeper to uncover underlying issues. Equipped with a comprehensive database, 211 also provides translation services, connecting users to a broad network of organizations offering thousands of support programs.

There are currently 14 call centers providing 211 services in Ohio, all as members of the Ohio Alliance of Information and Referral Services (AIRS), yet there are still pockets of the state not covered by 211.

The Case for State Funding in Ohio

Ohio 211s currently are funded by charitable or local dollars or a combination of both. Ohio is one of only three states that do not provide ongoing state funding for 211. A $2 million investment by the state would match the philanthropic investment United Ways make in 211 each year. Despite its proven effectiveness, the expansion and enhancement of 211 services depend heavily on sustained funding at the state level. Such funding is not merely an expenditure but an investment in the well-being of communities and the efficiency of social services delivery. A substantial state investment in 211 would allow providers to continue to secure the infrastructure that offers this critical service to Ohio citizens.

A Look Ahead

As we look to the future, the importance of 211 in the fabric of our social services ecosystem cannot be understated. It represents a centralized, accessible point of entry for anyone in need, reducing the complexity of finding help in a sea of information. The success stories and data emerging from various communities underscore the transformative power of 211 — but to unlock its full potential, sustained financial backing is essential.

State and local governments, philanthropic organizations, and community stakeholders are urged to recognize the value of 211 and commit to its funding. By doing so, they not only support the infrastructure of 211 but invest in the resilience and well-being of their communities. In times of crisis and calm, 211 stands ready to connect, support, and uplift. It’s time we ensure it has the resources to continue this mission far into the future.

211 is more than a number. It is a lifeline for millions, a testament to the power of connection, and a clear example of what is possible when communities come together to support one another. As we champion the expansion and sustainability of 211 services, we also celebrate the spirit of community and mutual aid that 211 embodies. It’s a call to action for all stakeholders to ensure that this critical service continues to thrive and expand, offering a helping hand to those in need, whenever they need it.