Unsure where to turn for help, a homeless single mom named Mary made an important call after giving birth to a baby in 2020. She called 211, a social service hotline that put her in touch with temporary housing .
Despite working two jobs, Mary, who declined to give her last name, couldn’t afford rent and childcare. But 211 operators in Lake County hooked her up with YWCA child care, financial assistance for a security deposit, three months’ rent and a landlord who would accept both.
“I never would have known if I didn’t call 211,” Mary said in one video interview with the United Way, which helps sponsor the service. She now has a single steady job and a home. “I feel like 211 … has helped me tremendously.”
A similar 211 service recently came to DuPage County, and more are slated to launch early next year — possibly as early as Feb. 11 — in Chicago, suburban Cook County and Kendall County. 211, known as 911 for emergencies and Chicago’s 311 for city services, puts callers in touch with non-emergency health and social services.
The most common services are help with rent and utilities, but they also include free and confidential crisis counseling, disaster assistance, food pantries, health care, insurance, employment and veterans services.
Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will are among the many counties serving the service in Illinois. Overall, the state lags behind the rest of the country in hotline implementation, with almost half of its counties still without one.
But once Chicago and Kendall come online early next year, nearly 90% of the state’s population will be covered.
In DuPage, the second most populous county in Illinois after Cook, officials set aside $1.6 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act money to fund the program for the first three years.
The 24-hour multilingual phone bank will be operated by the Addison Consolidated Dispatch Center, which also provides 911 dispatch services, County Board Chairman Dan Cronin said.
“We are excited to introduce another component of DuPage County’s approach to strengthening our social service safety net,” Cronin said.
Anticipating increased needs during and after the COVID pandemic, DuPage officials have also provided millions of dollars in funding to improve the county’s social services. This included purchasing and remodeling a former Red Roof Inn in Downers Grove for PADS to use as a homeless shelter.
Costs vary by county. Kane County, whose service is provided by WAY, has an annual budget of about $86,000. More populous Lake County, which has handled 150,000 calls in three years, has a budget approaching $500,000, with funding from the county, local governments, foundations and individual contributors.
Calls have increased significantly since the start of the COVID pandemic. In addition to the hotline, people can access services in many counties through 211 websites. Last year, Lake County counted more than 57,000 contacts with 211 — most of them online.
But it often helps to talk to a 211 operator, said United Way of Lake County spokeswoman Lori Nerheim.
“The benefit of talking to someone is that they are trained navigators to get to the root of the need,” she said. “Many people may call with a need, say shelter, but it may be the result of domestic violence, or they may need food. Having someone to guide you is really valuable.”
Also using Federal Rescue Plan funds, Kendall County has budgeted $136,000 for its program through 2025, County Administrator Scott Koeppel said. Outgoing County Board Chairman Scott Gryder helped set up the program through a nonprofit agency, Koeppel said.
The next step is to make sure people know about the number. Only 21% of Lake County residents knew about the 211 service in a recent county survey.
“Ultimately, we want it to be as memorable as 911,” said United Lake District President Kristi Long.
DuPage County Board Member Julie Renehan said officials expect 30,000 to 40,000 calls for help a year.
“211 meets real needs in real time,” she said. “It’s the number to call when you don’t know who to call. That’s something we can all be proud of.”