New 211 hotline in DuPage County — and soon in Cook and Kendall — is a quick connection for non-emergency health and social services
Unsure where to go for help, a homeless single mother named Mary made an important call after she had a baby in 2020. She dialed 211, a social service hotline that put her in touch with transitional housing.
Though she was working two jobs, Mary, who declined to give her last name, couldn’t afford both rent and child care. But 211 operators in Lake County hooked her up with YWCA child care, financial aid for a security deposit, three months’ rent, and a landlord who’d accept both.
“I never would have known if I didn’t call 211,” Mary said in a video interview with United Way, which helps sponsor the service. She now has a single stable job and a home. “I feel like 211 ... has helped me tremendously.”
A similar 211 service has recently come to DuPage County, and more are planned to launch early next year — possibly on Feb. 11 — in Chicago, suburban Cook County, and Kendall County. 211, like the better known 911 for emergencies and Chicago’s 311 for city services, puts callers in touch with nonemergency health and social services.
The most common services are help paying rent and utilities, but they also include free and confidential crisis counseling, disaster assistance, food pantries, health care, insurance, employment, and veterans services.
Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will are among the many counties that offer the service in Illinois. As a whole, the state lags behind the rest of the nation in implementing the hotline, with almost half of its counties still without.
But once Chicago and Kendall come online early next year, nearly 90% of the state’s population will be covered.
In DuPage, the second most populated county in Illinois after Cook, officials set aside $1.6 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act money to fund the program for the first three years.
The round-the-clock, multilingual phone bank will be operated by Addison Consolidated Dispatch Center, which also provides 911 dispatch services, County Board Chairman Dan Cronin said.
“We are thrilled to introduce yet another component of DuPage County’s approach of strengthening our social service safety net,” Cronin said.
Anticipating increased needs during and following the COVID pandemic, DuPage officials also have provided millions of dollars in funding to beef up the county’s social services. That included buying and remodeling a former Red Roof Inn in Downers Grove for PADS to use as a homeless shelter.
Costs vary by county. Kane County, whose service is provided by PATH , has an annual budget of about $86,000. The more populous Lake County, which has handled 150,000 calls in three years, has a budget approaching $500,000, with funding from the county, local governments, foundations and individual contributors.
Calls have increased significantly since the onset of the COVID pandemic. Besides the phone hotline, people can access services in many counties through 211 websites. Last year, Lake County counted more than 57,000 contacts with 211 — most of them online.
But it often helps to speak to a 211 operator, United Way of Lake County spokeswoman Lori Nerheim said.
“The benefit of speaking to someone is they’re trained navigators to get to the root of the need,” she said. “Many people may call with one need, say housing, but it may be result of domestic violence, or there may be a food need. Having someone to guide you is really valuable.”
Also using federal American Rescue Plan funds, Kendall County has budgeted $136,000 for its program through 2025, county Administrator Scott Koeppel said. Outgoing County Board Chairman Scott Gryder helped to set up the program through a nonprofit agency, Koeppel said.
The next step is to make sure people know about the number. Only 21% of Lake County residents knew about the 211 service in a recent county survey.
“Ultimately, we want it to be as memorable as 911,” United Way of Lake County President Kristi Long said.
DuPage County board member Julie Renehan said officials expect 30,000 to 40,000 calls for help a year.
“211 meets real needs in real time,” she said. “It’s the number to call when you don’t know who to call. This is one we can all be proud of.”