It’s Time for 211

We know 911 and 311; It’s Time for 211

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune on 9/10/2020

As leaders of notable Chicago human services organizations, we see every day the significant and long-term impacts low-income communities are facing today. Whether it’s a single mom trying to keep food on the table and a roof overhead, an undocumented family facing eviction because the breadwinners have been unemployed for months, or a person overwhelmed by grief, anxiety and trauma.

The historic challenges presented by a global pandemic, violence and unrest require bigger and bolder solutions. For a city resident, finding help and services to address their personal crises typically requires navigating a dizzying network of phone numbers and hotlines that are difficult to find, may not be staffed at all hours, and may not have what a caller needs. Finding reliable, compassionate, and customized help is anything but easy in our city, yet it doesn’t have to be so hard.

When it comes to emergencies, we know to call 911. We also know that when our street light is out or our garbage hasn’t been collected, we can call 311. But where does a Chicagoan go for help when they lose their job, need food, grief counseling, or help with an addiction? In most of the country, the answer is 211.

Nearly 96% of Americans can access a 211 service for streamlined help 24/7. In fact, Chicago is one of few cities in the country without this simple service that with a text, call or website visit, connects people to trained staff that understands and can support the complexity and trauma of everyday crises.

Every year, the 211 network nationwide answers more than 11 million calls for help, according to United Way. In 2020, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 211 network is on track to nearly double that number. By partnering with city and state governments, 211 staff have connected people in need to critical and available CARES funding assistance.

In Chicago, African-Americans, Latinos, youth, low-wage workers, part-time workers, and people with less than a bachelor’s degree are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. The historic equity gap in the city’s Black and Brown communities has grown into a gulf, leading to the tragic reality that COVID-19’s infection rate most impacts the same people who have experienced the greatest pandemic-related job losses.

The city, state, our fellow nonprofits and foundations, along with the private sector, must band together to do better for Chicago residents. We have everything we need to launch 211 here: expert nonprofit staff throughout the area ready to answer calls; a lead agency with experience operating 211 in cities all over the country; the ability to bring corporate and philanthropic resources to supplement public funding; and a state-of-the-art information and referral system.

United Way and the leaders of 15 nonprofit organizations that make up the Community Based Organization Collective are ready to bring our collective efforts to bear to work with our elected leaders and launch this affordable new service immediately. Now more than ever, the people of Chicago need our help. We can help them more quickly and cost effectively, and we must do it now.

Mayor Lightfoot’s Recovery Task Force laid out important recommendations, including 211, to build back Chicago’s economy and finally break down historic racial inequities to create thriving communities. It’s time to set out on this new path by committing to a 211 service to better serve every person in Chicago so they can build a bright future for their families and for our vibrant city.

Authored and Signed By:

Maria Kim, Cara Chicago

Javier Garibay, Central States SER

Karen Freeman-Wilson, Chicago Urban League

Evelyn Diaz, Heartland Alliance

Karina Ayala-Bermejo, Instituto del Progreso Latino

Regan Brewer, Jane Addams Resource Corp.

Meghan Harte, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC)

Ric Estrada, Metropolitan Family Services

Brenda Palms Barber, North Lawndale Employment Network

Tina Sanders, Phalanx Family Services

Victor Dickson, Safer Foundation

Marie Trzupek Lynch, Skills for Chicagoland’s Future

Zack Schrantz, UCAN

Sean Garrett, United Way

Ed Coleman, West Side Forward

Dorri McWhorter, YWCA Metropolitan Chicago