Hotline 211 is a quick link for non-emergency health and social services

Unsure where to go for help, a homeless single mom named Mary made an important call after giving birth to a baby in 2020. She dialed 211, a social services hotline that connected her to transitional housing.

Despite working two jobs, Mary, who declined to give her last name, could not afford both rent and childcare. But 211 operators in Lake County connected her 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 hadn’t called 211,” Mary said in a video interview with the United Way, which helps sponsor the service. Now she has a stable job and a home. “I feel like 211 … helped me tremendously.”

A similar 211 service recently came to DuPage County, and others are slated to launch early next year — possibly as early as Feb. 11 — in Chicago, suburban Cook County and Kendall County. 211, like the better-known 911 for emergencies and Chicago’s 311 for city services, connects callers to 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 relief, food pantries, health care, insurance, employment and veterans services.

Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will are among the many counties that offer the service in Illinois. Overall, the state lags behind the rest of the nation in hotline implementation, with nearly half of its counties still not.

But once Chicago and Kendall come online early next year, nearly 90 percent of the state’s population will be covered.

In DuPage, Illinois’ second-most populous county after Cook, officials allocated $1.6 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act 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 President Dan Cronin said.

“We are excited to introduce another component of DuPage County’s approach to strengthening our social safety net,” Cronin said.

Anticipating increased needs during and after the COVID pandemic, DuPage officials also provided millions of dollars in funding to strengthen social services in the county. This included the purchase and conversion of a former Red Roof Inn in Downers Grove for PADS to be used as a homeless shelter.

Costs vary by county. Kane County, whose service is provided by PATH, 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 donors.

Calls have increased significantly since the start of the COVID pandemic. In addition to the hotline, people can access services in many counties through the 211 website. 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, United Way of Lake County spokeswoman Lori Nerheim said.

“The benefit of talking to someone is that they are a trained navigator to get to the root of the need,” she said. “A lot of people might call with a need, say housing, but that might be the result of domestic violence or they might need food. Having someone to guide you is really valuable.”

Also using funds from the federal U.S. bailout plan, Kendall County has earmarked $136,000 for its program through 2025, County Administrator Scott Koppel said. Outgoing County Board Chairman Scott Grider helped create the program through a nonprofit agency, Koeppel said.

The next step is to make sure people know about the number. Only 21 percent of Lake County residents knew about 211 service in a recent county survey.

“At the end of the day, we want it to be as memorable as 911,” United Way of Lake County President Christy Long said.

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. “This is the number to call when you don’t know who to call. This is something we can all be proud of.”

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