211 Central South: Niagara sees a sharp rise in 211 calls in 2011

Niagara 211 expects to get walloped this year with a record-setting 75,000 calls for help, many of which will be messy, time-consuming and difficult to solve.

The free telephone-based information service saw a sharp rise last year in the number of calls it took that were categorized as complex. Complex means callers with problems that are multi-layered and involved and therefore more difficult to sort out.

In 2010, complex inquiries to Niagara 211 numbered 331. By 2011, the number had jumped dramatically to more than 1900 calls.

Niagara’s faltering economy, its record jobless numbers, an aging population and the lack of an accessible transportation system could be to blame for the large increase, says Rosanna Thoms, executive director at Information Niagara, which runs the 211 service.

And even though the region’s unemployment rate has dropped and the economy may be picking up, the effect of these economic woes tend to be more lasting particularly for people who are disadvantaged, elderly, isolated, disabled and new to Canada, many of which describe a typical 211 client.

“Whenever there’s a downturn in the economy what starts to happen is fallout,” says Thoms. “You may have someone who lost their minimum-wage job and collected employment insurance and now can’t find work. The lack of money makes them behind in their rent or there’s insufficient food and that person gets depressed and their life starts to get complicated.”

211 and its website, 211ontario.ca , is a confidential, one-stop service for the wide assortment of human and social services offered by non-profits, community agencies and governments.

Phone calls are fielded by certified information and referral specialists who undergo thorough training to help callers by making referrals to more than 56,000 programs and services across Ontario that may provide the answer a client is looking for.

211 is a 24-hour service. The St. Catharines office provides service to five other regions, including Hamilton, Waterloo, Brant County, Guelph, Wellington County and Haldimand and Norfolk Counties, an area that represents more than 1.8 million people. During weekends and evenings calls are diverted to 211 in Toronto. A translation service is provided for callers in 150 languages.

While 211 specialist handle many routine questions about flu shots and where to apply for a passport, examples of complex inquiries might be:

A senior citizen suddenly loses her vision and can only think to call 211. The service links her immediately to 911.

A nurse calls seeking help for a soon-to-give-birth immigrant mother who has no family or friends to look after her two-year-old while she delivers her baby.

A man calls looking for psychological help to try to deal with the physical abuse he’s taken from his wife.

“When someone presents like that we have to make sure they’re in a safe situation at this time,” says Debra Kingsley, an information services supervisor with 211. “The information specialist would likely go through what finances he has available and explore his level of support and look at any serious health issues and explore whether the doctor even knows about it.”

The 211 service also provides assistance to:

  • emergency services by relieving misdirected calls from 911 and freeing emergency response teams to deal with real emergencies.
  • public health by acting as a central point for updated information on vaccines, flu clinics and other timely health issues.
  • public safety personnel, serving as an easy-to-remember number to give to at-risk populations.
  • non-profits and sliding fee-for-profits by being connected to clients who otherwise may not have known where to turn.
  • community-wide outreach and awareness efforts, allowing 211 to connect social workers, clergy, doctors, lawmakers and others to programs in the community so they know where to refer people they serve for help.

211, which is partially funded by the United Way, was launched in Niagara in November 2005.

In Ontario, 211 is now available to all residents. More than 55 per cent of the Canadian population has access to a 211 service.