Inquirer Editorial: Social-services number right call for the region

After Sandy , Gov. Christie, seen here in Seaside Heights, encouraged residents to dial 211 for social services. THOMAS P. COSTELLO / Asbury Park Press
After Sandy , Gov. Christie, seen here in Seaside Heights, encouraged residents to dial 211 for social services. THOMAS P. COSTELLO / Asbury Park Press
Posted: February 11, 2013

Residents of Southeastern Pennsylvania can now dial a special phone number, 211, for help navigating social services. Kudos are due to the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey and the city of Philadelphia, which made the nearly $1 million investment needed to launch and operate the system.

Too many people seeking government or charity help, especially for the first time, aren't sure where to turn, and many go without the help they need as a result. With its formal launch set for today - this being 2/11 - the new number is designed to serve as a clearinghouse for assistance, helping those in need make their way through the maze of health and human-services agencies.

From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week, residents of the five-county Southeastern Pennsylvania region will be able to call for help with basic needs such as food, housing, and mental-health services using the free and easily remembered number. The goal eventually is to expand 211 service to the entire state, United Way officials say, but that will take some time.

United Way is making efforts to raise awareness of the number in the region, which will be crucial to its success. The public also must be educated on the differences between 211 and the other -11 numbers. The emergency-services number 911 is of course well-known, as is 411 for directory information. And the city of Philadelphia also has a fledgling 311 number for nonemergency municipal services.

The latter has yet to live up to expectations. A critical review by City Controller Alan Butkovitz's office found the city's 311 call center wanting, largely due to budget cuts that left it unavailable late at night and on weekends. United Way officials say they have worked closely with and learned lessons from the 311 effort.

As with 311, the 211 service is meant to do more than simply dispense information. The nature of every request for service will be cataloged so that officials can identify areas where needs are greatest and provide data to policymakers.

Nearly every state in the country, including New Jersey and Delaware, has some 211 service. It has become a lifeline particularly after natural disasters, when the demand for social services surges. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy last year, the Garden State's 211 center handled more than 90,000 calls during a one-month period, 10 times its usual volume.

For the next crisis as well as everyday social-service needs, the advent of 211 in Pennsylvania is welcome.


For more information, visit www.211sepa.org.

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