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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Calling 211 can connect people with social services

Stacie Ellis, a Community Coordinator with the 211 Resource Line, concentrates Wednesday as she fields a call  at the  Spokane center. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Sitting in a small office next to her fellow 2-1-1 resource line call takers, Stacie Ellis talked to a woman in a domestic violence situation about her options.

The woman recently immigrated to the United States. She had no friends and no family in the area.

“She had huge needs,” Ellis said. “She was also dealing with a lot of issues with racism and was really feeling like there was no support for her.”

Ellis connected the woman with resources to keep her safe and asked if she could call back again. Ellis talked to that woman a few times and helped connect her to other services.

Ellis is one of just four call takers at Eastern Washington 2-1-1. The 211 resource line is a national system that also works in Canada but is broken up into regions that maintain their own databases of resources.

Anyone can call 211 during their business hours of 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., use their texting services around the clock at 898-211 or search an online database for information on things like volunteer opportunities, how to get rent assistance, where to get free legal advice and hundreds of other services.

Eastern Washington 2-1-1 is a United Way program that is funded by the state and local donors. The 211 call center in Spokane operates out of Frontier Behavioral Health.

The No. 1 topic callers need help with is housing, said Amanda Emmerson, supervisor of the Eastern Washington 2-1-1 program.

Callers may ask about help finding clothes for a job interview or where to find low-cost medical care but often the conversation circles back around to finding stable housing, Emmerson said.

After dialing 211, a series of questions take about a minute to direct a caller to the right call center in the correct language, before a real person comes on the line.

All of the current 211 call-takers called the line for information themselves in the past before working in the call center.

Eric Sims is currently the data coordinator there, but a few years ago he was homeless with his young son.

“Because of my previous experiences, it feels like I have walked in the shoes of many of our callers,” Sims said. “Most of our callers are in poverty or low income trying to navigate the system and find resources to help them in their time of need.”

It took Sims almost six months to find the resources he needed to reset his life and get out of homelessness, he said.

Sims said knowing about 211 back then would have made a huge difference in his life.

Sims now works to streamline the information that his colleagues give out to callers.

Recently, 211 has made an effort to meet with more service providers to get more detailed information on the help they can offer, Emmerson said. Short-term programs, wait times and even little things like which building entrance to go in are all helpful details for someone in crisis, Emmerson said.

“It’s really important for us to try to meet the needs of every caller,” Ellis said, “and sometimes we can’t if those agencies aren’t listed or we are unaware of those programs.”

Ellis also works as the provider coordinator, meeting with providers like SNAP, local shelters and behavioral health services. Taking the time to meet with service providers has been part of the team’s focus this year.

While talking to people in crisis all day can be emotionally draining, call-takers get specialized training to help them empathize with callers while not becoming too involved.

Having each other to talk to in their small call center also helps, Ellis said. Working for eight hours a day in an office the size of a small conference room, the group has become a family that bounces ideas off each other, gives advice and is willing to listen.

When he’s not answering calls, media coordinator Ed Goff spends his days scrolling through social media looking for updates from service providers and putting together monthly newsletters.

Goff and his wife were struggling a few years ago and were on government assistance. He started volunteering at 211 and “fell in love with the intent and the message,” Goff said. He was soon hired.

Having been in a situation similar to many of the callers, Goff said it’s important to let people know there’s hope to move past the crisis they’re facing.

“It’s very important to kind of try and remain positive,” Goff said. “Let them know that there is some hope in the community out there, to get back on their feet, back on track. It’s not just an endless cycle of hopelessness.”