50 Stories Part 48: Navigating the System – 211 in the 2010s
Image: 211 staff celebrate with cake after we successfully renewed our AIRS accreditation.
The 211 service continued to expand in the last decade. It is still free, multi-lingual, and confidential. Certified Community Resource Specialists answer 211 calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week, helping callers find appropriate services and resources in their community. By 2015, almost 30,000 calls were received on the 211 line, with 7% answered within 20 seconds, 98% of callers reporting they received useful information, and 96% saying they would call again. In 2015, the program was expanded to include Red Deer and the Bow Valley corridor, and in 2018, it became one of two hubs for crisis services across Alberta, in partnership with Canadian Mental Health Association in Edmonton serving the north.
Ruth Ramsden-Wood, President of United Way in 2010 noted 211’s secondary function:
“211 isn’t just a referral service. It is an effective community planning tool and the data collected enables us to predict demand for services and do what we can to work with the community to meet those demands.”
Also at United Way, Heather Innes comments on the benefits of 211:
“When I was working on All In For Schools at United Way, I would take 211 posters to all of our high schools, and staff rooms. It is a great resource for students and parents, and for teachers who are looking for ways to help kids. I have used 211 a lot, both in my work and finding out where supports and services are for family members. My foster mother had early onset dementia, and 211 helped get the necessary supports for her.”
''I have used 211 a lot, both in my work and finding out where supports and services are for family members. My foster mother had early onset dementia, and 211 helped get the necessary supports for her.'' - Heather Innes
211 and crisis services
Volunteer Donna Coutts talks about the relationship between Distress Centre crisis line volunteers and 211 staff:
“211 is separate, but if you call to the crisis line and you need a food hamper, we transfer the caller to 211. In turn 211 will transfer callers to us, if they are calling about something unrelated to 211.
“It was a big plus getting 211. They always have the most current resources. I try and have people call 211 themselves, but if they are really upset and they have been crying, I will go over to 211 and get the information, so they don’t have to tell their story all over again.”
Volunteer Nic Macdonald from ConnecTeen notes that he often has to inform people about 211:
“A lot of people have a misunderstanding of what 211 is. They think 211 is going to help them right away instead of helping connect them to the resources they need. 211 will not pay their rent.”
Mohammed Kadar, a bank manager who volunteers for Distress Centre helps spread the word through his work:
“When I talk to clients, I tell them about 211, like when the flood happened. If they need food or shelter, then I say 211 might be a good place to find resources.”
The importance of data
Chloé McBean, who was 211 Program Manager for two years before recently leaving the role in November 2020, speaks to the service:
“We end up having an impact on callers who aren’t just calling from Calgary. With our involvement with Canadian Suicide Prevention Service, we are supporting people from all over Canada.
“Before, I didn’t appreciate how much work goes into the back-end of making it work. It’s actually very much a science, thinking about how to categorize things. Our database is only as good as how often we update it, and the information we acquire is based on the relationships we have with other agencies. Our team of 4 people manage over 1,100 resources.
“It would be great if one day we didn’t need 211 anymore, but for the foreseeable future, there will continue to be a need for this kind of service.”
''It’s actually very much a science, thinking about how to categorize things. Our database is only as good as how often we update it, and the information we acquire is based on the relationships we have with other agencies. Our team of 4 people manage over 1,100 resources.'' -Chloé McBean
Director of Operations Robyn Romano notes:
“Our Community Resource Specialists not only connect callers to services, they also advocate on their behalf and offer follow up calls to ensure they were connected with the appropriate services.”
Basic Needs Fund
In 2017, 211 and the Basic Needs Fund (BNF, formerly the Instrumental Needs Fund) services were integrated, in hopes of being more efficient in helping Calgarians. That year, over $136,000 was distributed to 165 individuals and families who would otherwise have been homeless or without critical utilities. 211 is the entry point for referrals for the BNF program and Mike Kwok, the BNF Administrator, meets with clients and completes a comprehensive assessment to determine if funds can be granted.
Staff member Lynda Gardiner speaks to her time with the fund:
“I started in 2009 and was hired to be the worker for the Instrumental Needs Fund. Originally, I had money from our own fundraising, as well as from United Way and FCSS. If a client was covered by Alberta Works, then they would have to go through an Alberta Works funder. If they didn’t have any kind of income at all, then we had more liberty to use our own funding to get their needs met. I often worked with the client around budgeting and those kinds of things.
“They did not have to go through counselling, but a lot of them chose to. When there was no money left, I saw fewer clients. I would often phone a landlord and ask for more time. I did a lot of advocating. We confirmed what was owing and I sent the money directly to the person owed.
“There is still a need for Basic Needs support, absolutely. Gambling and addictions are issues. Often times I would team up with other agencies who provided funding, and together would get things paid off so clients could move forward independently again.
“I had an immigrant family I worked with, a mom and a child who had made the decision to separate from dad. They got into a shelter, but did not qualify for anything other than that. We managed to find them affordable housing, and got them set up with income support. They are now successfully independent.”
''I had an immigrant family I worked with, a mom and a child who had made the decision to separate from dad. They got into a shelter, but did not qualify for anything other than that. We managed to find them affordable housing, and got them set up with income support.'' - Lynda Gardiner
Husky Energy has been a long-time funder of the Basic Needs Fund. Husky V.P. Susan Anderson comments:
“Distress Centre would come and talk to us every six months and tell us the sort of work they were doing. Every single time it was moving. We give them in the range of $12,000 or $13,000 annually, and what they are able to do with that is shocking.
“The story that has always resonated with me is a little one. The Executive Director told us about a domestic assault situation, where the spouse had broken his wife’s glasses, rendering her largely unable to see and carry on with her daily life. Distress Centre gave her $150 for a new pair of glasses. For me, that was such a good example of relatively little money changing somebody’s life immediately.
“After a few years we thought we should determine if Distress Centre was still the best agency to support. We met with other agencies and again, the Board unanimously decided DC was the best agency.”
During Calgary’s current economic slow down and COVID-induced financial stresses, the need for 211 and the BNF has never been more evident. Heather Innes summarizes: “The value of the service is so incredibly huge, that I would love to see it advertised in every doctor and dentist’s office, in every social service office, in schools, anywhere people might be thinking about accessing help.”
Distress Centre will be sharing a story every Tuesday in 2020 for 50 weeks to celebrate our 50th Anniversary. We hope you will join us on this journey. All stories can be found here.