211 Ontario helpline goes province-wide, over 4 million served

It’s official. 211 Ontario, the phone line that has helped well over 4 million callers find help in the social and human services sectors since it launched a decade ago, is now province-wide. And Ontario is the first province in Canada to be able to make that claim.

The journey, which began in Toronto in 2002, culminated in a series of launches in smaller communities such as Manitoulin this past December. From major urban centres to the tiniest of towns, now every resident of Ontario can pick up the phone, dial the easy-to-remember 2-1-1 number, and with the help of the real live person who answers, find their way to the services and programs that specifically meet their needs. In 2011, 211 Ontario received nearly 575,000 calls most often related to health issues, income and financial assistance, housing, food and meals, and legal and public safety. Visits to its website, 2110ntario.ca, increased 40 per cent. And the service won the Highest Customer Satisfaction Award from SQM, which benchmarks more than 450 call centres in North America.

“Ontario 211’s expansion across the province will give all Ontarians instant telephone access to local social services information. Whether it is a family in crisis, a young person just starting out, a new Canadian family or a parent searching for local children’s services, the 211 service will make it easier and quicker to find the right services and supports,” said Bas Balkissoon, Parliamentary Assistant to Minister of Community and Social Services John Milloy.

Supported by the Province of Ontario, individual municipalities, United Ways, the Ontario Trillium Foundation, and Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 211 Ontario Service Corporation is a non-profit designed to create the greatest impact with the dollars it receives.

“We’re about efficiency, making sure every dollar from every source goes its furthest, serving Ontarians in the most effective way,” says Bill Morris, Executive Director. “The use of cutting edge technology helps to achieve this. In addition, service record data and referral data gleaned from such technologies is helping to map needs and gaps in human services across the province.”

Here’s how the help-line works. When a caller dials 211, an Information and Referral Specialist listens to the person’s plight and probes further until he or she fully understands the situation. Then, applying years of social services experience and specialized information and referral training, the I&R Specialist navigates through 211’s vast database and provides contact and background information on the services and programs most likely to give the caller the help they need.

“In this information age, the problem is sorting through reams of information with no way of knowing what is reliable,” says Morris. “And usually, a person has to take on this task when they’re in the throes of a crisis. Lots of people don’t expect something will go wrong, so when it does, they’re confused and have no idea where to turn. We’re here to point them in the right direction.

Morris points out too that often people in crisis just want to deal with that crisis – they don’t realize there’s usually more. For example, someone who has been out of work for a long time, may wake up one day and realize he has to use a food bank. While 211 will certainly find him one best suited to his needs, they’ll go further than that.

“Based on our experience and expertise, we know the caller will likely require additional support. We might recommend a housing agency, or an organization that can help him with depression, say. Unfortunately, in the human services world everything is piece by piece; rarely can a single resource meet all of your needs.”

Beyond assisting individuals, 211 Ontario lends a hand to communities in need. Last summer, after a powerful tornado ripped through Goderich, the service helped to coordinate public donations. People could call 211 to make contributions and 211 in turn contacted Red Cross, Salvation Army and other such agencies. “After getting the word out via our website and social media, we were getting a good response,” says Morris. “But things really picked up when Margaret Atwood tweeted to her vast following ‘If you wanted to donate to Goderich, call 211.’”

211 helps people find the right community and social services. 211 provides free, confidential access to information about the social, community, health and government services. 211 is available 24/7, 365 days a year. 211 can provide information in over 150 languages. The website www.211ontario.ca is available to everyone with Internet access and includes more than 56,000 programs and service.