And there's an app to reach the services hotline the helps people find shelter, eclipse glasses and more, too

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: LYNDSEY HEWITT - Local 211 Info CEO Dan Herman says the service helps meet everyday and emergency needs.Local 211 Info CEO Dan Herman wonders why more people aren't aware of the information referral hotline, website and mobile app he oversees, which connects people to services ranging from housing for homeless people to finding eclipse glasses this summer.

He calls it the "911 of health and human services." During winter, it's a go-to for people on the streets looking for shelter.

The concept originated in Atlanta in 1997, where it was operated by the United Way. In 2000, the Federal Communications Commission approved the use of the 211 number nationally.

Now there are more than 200 operating units of 211, says Herman, CEO of the Oregon and Southwest Washington branch for the past four and a half years.

Portland's service started in 2004, and has grown from 35 staff to 70. It provides referrals more than 700,000 times a year. The chief reasons for calls are for housing and food.

It's also been growing its fee-for-service contract partnerships with state agencies, which now supplies half its operating budget, Herman says.

"When people call for the first time, particularly if they've been middle class, they just had no idea of the support and services that are available out there — not that it's enough — but there's a good level," he says.

The Tribune caught up with the Vancouver resident to see how 211 is operating these days.

Tribune: How has 211 changed since it started?

Herman: Well, our fundamental service model is the same, to give access to resources around health and human services across the state. When the organization started, it was really just the Willamette Valley and now it's statewide and four counties in Southwest Washington. But I think the biggest contributor to the growth, and there's been a lot of growth for us the last few years, is focusing on working with Oregon state agencies and health care organizations in particular around health care transformation.

Tribune: Does the organization experience more calls during winter?

Herman: In terms of providing an access point for services, yes. We do a project in the Portland area with the Joint Office of Homeless Services. So we do coordinated entry and screenings of people who are in need of housing. They're doing a screener and putting people into the queue to potentially receive shelter or housing.

Tribune: What do you wish more people understood about how 211 works?

Herman: First of all, I'd want just more awareness of 211. We're really, in my mind, for the layperson, the 911 of health and human services. It's free; it's confidential. There's multiple ways to reach us from texting to mobile app to the website and to calling us.

And I think, given that so many people in our country are a paycheck away from disaster, just the idea of being able to access programs and services that might benefit them, a family member or a friend is important. But that starts with awareness. If you move out into the rural communities, one thing we've found is having a local person on the ground is helpful. Currently, we're a centralized operation near the Cascade Station, near Ikea and the Portland airport. But we've been able to, in some regions, put in a community engagement coordinator and they can localize the 211 service. They can go to trainings; they can go to public meetings and communicate about the service that is 211. They can help us update the resource database, which is thousands of programs and services. So we want the rural communities to know we're trying to reach them on their terms.

Tribune: What's the most surprising use for 211 that maybe people aren't often aware of?

Herman: The one that comes to mind is this past summer, we worked with state and local partners in the Deschutes County area to stand up an eclipse hotline. We were up for nine days and people were contacting us about, "Where do I get glasses for the eclipse?" and the best viewing areas and transport routes. We took nearly 3,000 calls in nine days, which is a pretty significant volume. And that morphed into — as central Oregon was going through forest fires — it evolved into evacuation routes, disaster management and stage warnings.

Then I remember I was in central Oregon for the eclipse and just driving into Redmond there was one of those big Oregon Department of Transportation signs flashing on route 126, that said: "Welcome. Questions? Call 211." That was kind of neat to see our service and our brand front and center like that.

Over the years there's been a lot of things. We continue to be the tsunami debris hotline. When H1N1 was a big deal, we started a call center. Years ago we worked with Bank of America so during the Great Recession people could access us and say, "We can't pay our mortgage; how can we redesign this thing?"

Tribune: Are there any new ideas on the horizon for future growth and use?

Herman: Our plan really calls for further partnerships with state agencies. We've really only begun to tap into that channel. For instance, we work with the Department of Homeland Security, Oregon Health Authority, Parks and Recreation and the Department of Agriculture. But there's a multitude of state agencies and a couple years ago we became recognized as a sole-source contractor with the Department of Administrative Services. So it's really easy to contract with 211 if you're a state agency now.

I think the other thing that should drive growth is the continuation of health care transformation — getting people social support in addition to clinical support. A social support system according to where you live, where you go to school, a support network.

I do believe we've kind of hit our stride in terms of understanding what we have to offer, and what we do, and how that fee-for-service contract work allows us to serve our mission.

Tribune: How long are wait times, generally?

Herman: Currently the average is just over three minutes. That's an average, so that's going to depend on when you call. We are operating on the core work, basic info referral, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. We hope to get additional financial support soon so we can go 24/7. Some of our programs are 24/7, for instance, that homeless service program with the Joint Office of Homeless Services.

During winter, if there's an event, those wait times are going to spike up. But that's why we try to innovate. We have a website where you can get access to the same resources that you could get if you called us. You can text your ZIP to 898211 and have a texting conversation with one of our specialists. We have a mobile app that's been really well received. We launched it last November and it's had over 40,000 downloads in Google and Apple stores. And I know a lot of our first-line fire people, police and emergency personnel have the mobile app downloaded, so when they come across a situation, they can refer a person to that mobile app.

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