The Herald Bulletin

Afternoon Update

Local Politics

May 28, 2013

211 help line connects Hoosiers with assistance programs

Madison County served by statewide system

ANDERSON, Ind. — From an early age, youngsters are taught to call 911 in an emergency.

There’s another three-digit number that could be equally important — 211.

Think of it as a yellow pages for health and human services.

For the past 10 years dialing that number will connect callers with trained information specialists who can refer them to local organizations that can provide help with making utility or rent payments, finding food, or assistance with medical issues, employment, support for the elderly and legal counseling.

But according to a study released earlier this month by the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, many local public officials aren’t aware 211 systems exist in their counties.

A survey of approximately 1,000 mayors, county auditors, council, school board members and township trustees conducted by the Indiana Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental found that when asked if their county was connected to a 211 system, 82 percent of those who said “no” lived in counties that did have one.

While nearly all officials who thought they had 211 service were correct, according to a study authored in part by IU Center on Philanthropy researcher Kirsten Gronbjerg, “these findings suggest that information regarding the availability of 211 services is either not reaching or not having an impact on local government officials.”

Madison County Commissioner Steffanie Owens, R-South District, said Tuesday she wasn’t familiar with 211, and referred questions about it to Human Resources Director Shawn Swindell, who is aware of the program.

Local government officials who knew 211 programs existed in their counties were more likely to be familiar with details of it. About one-fifth participated in 211 planning and promotion, and another 43 percent said they were familiar with 211 operating details, according to the study. In contrast, however, more than three-fourths of local government officials who did not believe there was 211 in their county were unfamiliar with the service overall.

None of that comes as a surprise to Lynn Engel, president and CEO of Connect2Help, the largest of 13 211 centers in Indiana, which serves 24 counties including Madison.

“The people who need us know we’re here, but the people who can fund us do not,” which the IU study confirmed, she said. “We’ve never had a marketing or outreach budget.”

Funding for the program comes primarily from United Ways, community foundations and grants from organizations like the Lilly Endowment, but that wasn’t the original plan, Engel said.

Early proponents envisioned funding from three sources: philanthropic groups, state and local governments, and the federal government.

“Our main goal is to help people gain as much a degree of self-sufficiency as they can have,” Engel said.

Find Stu Hirsch on Facebook and @StuHirsch on Twitter, or call 640-4861.

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