Impressions from an hour spent with 211 Toronto

As the communications staff member, I like to learn more about the experience for front-line staff and the kinds of challenges they routinely face. Recently I had an opportunity to sit in on a few calls to gain a glimpse of the role 211 plays. I would like to share my impressions.

211’s helpline is anonymous, confidential and answered by a real person. Our I & R Specialists know asking for help from a stranger is difficult, but having a live voice greet callers, makes the ‘ask for help’ much easier. Those who call and follow up with the referrals provided are challenging the stigma often associated with accepting social services or charitable help. A majority of people call for themselves to take some control of a situation where they have limited or no choices, but a third of calls are on behalf of loved ones, friends, neighbours and clients.

Navigating social services is confusing enough for most of us and the reason 211 was created, but the first caller reminded me that navigating the world can be even more challenging when you are visually impaired.

A caseworker assigned to assist a blind senior searching for a new apartment called 211. The good news was, that the senior could afford to pay market rental prices, but needed to live close by a certain hospital to attend medical appointments. After several searches 211 was able to refer the caller to two seniors’ apartments, in close proximity to the hospital.

A man called needing an open food bank. His wife has been laid off, and he has significant health issues but needs to provide for his family, which includes two children. The Specialist asks if he had ever been to a food bank before, to ensure the caller understood the process. As luck would have it, two food banks that were open – the Scarborough Centre for Healthy Communities and St. Ninian’s Anglican Church were identified.

Not long after, a similar situation presented a single mother looking to provide for herself and a teenager. The I & R Specialist explained the hours of operation and provided phone numbers to call, as the majority of food banks require clients to make an appointment. The caller was referred to St. John’s Compassionate Mission, St. Ann’s Parish and the Salvation Army food banks as options to meet her needs.

Sometimes the calls are simple, clients are looking for information, but it is the complicated and advocacy calls where the true expertise of 211 Specialists shine. They are experts in navigating the social and community services programs, having been accredited through the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems (AIRS) to assess with a caller potential services for their particular situation.  Moreover, they will advocate if the callers are having trouble getting the help they are eligible for from specific agencies.

Another caller requested health resources, but by delving deeper the Specialist learned the need was for securing more home care services for a woman with disabilities. 211 referred her to the Community Care Access Centre and the Ontario Disability Support Program.

Sometimes a 211 call requires investigation. A woman with back problems and a broken bed, approached St. Vincent de Paul for help. It was unusual that the local chapter of the Society was unable to help because volunteers were not available at the time.  The 211 Specialist called St. Vincent de Paul to ask a few questions and discovered that if the caller was able to go the next closest church, they would be able to help her. The caller sounded tearful when she learned the good news.

An hour spent with a 211 Specialist revealed volunteers are essential to the running of Ontario’s social services. Those extenuating circumstances – from health challenges to an economic slowdown – often mean people have no choice but to ask for help. Reducing some of the obstacles to finding the right community and social services is why 211 is here and CAN help.

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