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news_2211, free human resources referral system, launches in Santa Cruz
Like a miniature fortress, boxes upon boxes are stacked up against the wall. Amongst the cubicles bathed in fluorescent light, the typical Monday morning drone is notably absent. In its place is a general buzz of anticipation, as the last finessing touches are made to a long-awaited project.

Everyone in the United Way of Santa Cruz County office is preparing for the July 30 launch of 211, a free phone referral service for human services ranging from food stamps to evacuations in the case of a natural disaster. The experience of being forced to listen to bad ’80s pop music while being put on hold, as one’s question is shuffled around, is an experience shared by many. Mary Lou Goeke, the executive director of United Way, says 211 arose from the need for a direct and accessible answer. 

“It was just that idea that people don’t know where to turn for help,” says Goeke. “They call here; they call there; they get frustrated; they give up. And so wouldn’t it be great if you had a 411 for health and human services?”

United Way first introduced 211 in Atlanta, Ga. in 1997, and many states have since followed suit. In October 2007, when wildfires spread through Southern California in less than a week, more than 130,000 people made phone calls to 211, looking for shelters and evacuation routes, for which the information was constantly changing. Similarly, in the Sept. 11 attacks, Connecticut had access to 211, which the governor implemented to help search for those who had been in the World Trade Center. In New York City and Washington D.C., 211 had not yet been set up, and information was distributed through assorted 1-800 numbers, which amidst the fear and panic, contributed to the confusion.

Currently, more than 80 percent of U.S. citizens have access to 211—approximately 240 million people. Some counties in California have been using 211 for 10 years. A little late to the party, Santa Cruz will be one of the last California coastal counties to set up 211. For the last seven months, Goeke and her team of volunteers have been working with the county and some city agencies to gather an exhaustive list of resource information in their database. They have also been gathering funds from the county and organizations such as First 5 to help meet their annual $140,000 budget. To promote 211, she and her team have been distributing various pamphlets and fliers (the contents within her fortress of boxes).

When 211 launches in Santa Cruz, residents will have access to information on any available human resources, from parenting classes to elderly care to income assistance.

Goeke contends that there is a vast amount of resources that aren’t being taken advantage of, simply because people don’t know about them. For instance, many families meet the requirements to qualify for food stamps, or to sign their children up in a free local healthcare program, but are unaware of these opportunities. Goeke believes 211 will be vital in closing this gaping disconnect. 211 also keeps track of the fulfillment of their callers’ requests, in order to help locate any services that many people need but are in a shortage.

Anyone can dial 211. Trained specialists in the San Francisco headquarters, where the Santa Cruz calls are directed, are available 24/7 in more than 150 languages.

Goeke adds that 211 of Santa Cruz is more than just a human resources database unique to the county. “If we had an earthquake, or a tsunami, or a fire, or a mudslide, and so many calls were coming in and they were overwhelming our operators in San Francisco,” she says, “they can connect automatically to Los Angeles, or Sacramento, or Riverside, so they could take our calls. You could have unlimited numbers of calls taken because you can connect to other 211’s in other communities and our data would come up automatically when they connected to us in an emergency.”

To celebrate the 211 launch, United Way of Santa Cruz will hold a launch celebration Friday, July 30 at the Cabrillo College Horticulture Center. The first Santa Cruz 211 call will be placed at the event. Goeke believes that the following calls placed by Santa Cruz residents will be significant in holding the community together. “Up until now there hasn’t been an easy go-to number. It’s been too fragmented,” she says. “This brings it all together into one place.”

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