Sandy Berlanga takes a call at the Arizona 211 office in Tempe. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror
Sandy Berlanga is one of three people who sits in a nondescript office building in Tempe helping people during some of the roughest times of their lives.
“Thank you for calling Arizona 2-1-1, how can I help you today?” Berlanga says over the phone to a person calling in. This is one of many calls she answers that day.
Arizona 211 is part of a federal initiative that aimed to create a system that people could call which would refer them to services in their community that help address issues related to poverty, domestic violence and more.
Like many programs, Arizona’s 211 had its budget slashed during the Great Recession. To cope with multi-billion-dollar deficits, lawmakers removed the entire $2.6 million state budget for 211, and funding has never been restored. The program is currently funded from other sources to the tune of only about $300,000 a year.
Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, has sponsored Senate Bill 1011 which would give state funding to the program to the tune of $1.5 million.
But the bill faces an uphill battle due to concerns by the evangelical Christian lobbying group Center for Arizona Policy that the service could refer people to abortion clinics. The Center for Arizona Policy represents the only opposition to the measure.
“Longstanding public policy in Arizona promotes life. That policy prohibits any taxpayer funding of abortion,” CAP Director Cathi Herrod said in a statement to the Mirror. The group has proposed an amendment to the law that would disallow the service to include abortion providers.
“The amendment, similar to other Arizona laws, would ensure that taxpayer funding for the 211 system would not include providing information regarding or referrals for abortions or to entities that provide abortions,” Herrod said.
In 2018, only three of more than 950,000 calls to 211 were from people seeking information on abortion clinics – a mere 0.0003 percent of the calls.
In the 2018 legislative session, similar concerns from CAP caused legislation to fund 211 to stall.
Lobbyists for 211 are working with CAP to find a way to mold the language of the bill in a way that would make CAP feel comfortable so the bill can move forward.
No one has officially registered their opposition to the measure, but Carter and others know it exists.
One of the other hurdles 211 advocates like Crisis Response Network CEO and President Justin Chase have to overcome is showing lawmakers and citizens that the system is not a pipeline to welfare programs.
“We divert a lot of people away from state benefits,” Chase said, adding that they’re able to help and intervene before a crisis gets to that point which can result in a state aid being needed.
What is 211?
Originally, funding for the program came through the Department of Economic Security, but now the United Way and other entities, including the cities of Tempe, Goodyear and Peoria, help pay for the program.
Berlanga is one of three people who takes phone calls for 211 for the entire state. The system used to have 19 people answering calls.
Last year, Arizona 211 fielded nearly 34,000 calls, and its website received more than 470,00 visitors. It referred more than 11,000 people to housing and shelters and helped 12,000 people find food and utility payment services.
Many people are unaware of 211 unless they’re in need of it. Courts will often hand out cards with information about 211, and so will nonprofits or police departments.
But due to a lack of funding, the service can’t meet the needs of everyone who needs assistance, said Crisis Response Network CEO and President Justin Chase.
Chase, a former social worker, took over 211 about four years ago and has been pushing for state funding for just as long. Crisis Response Network runs the 211 program, and Chase said the funding Carter is proposing would allow 211 to hire more than two dozen employees and be able to staff the system 24/7.
Currently, the staff of three is only able to work on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Last session, additional funding had been initially included in the budget, but during the budget battles that ensued during the #RedForEd movement, the funding was cut.
This year’s effort to fund 211 has bipartisan support, and backers say they are “cautiously optimistic” that it will be part of the budget.
The snowball effect
211 is not a new idea.
The program has actually existed in Arizona since 1964, though it was called the Community Information and Referral Service back then.
Steve Eastwood, a supervisor for the program, has been with it for 22 years and has seen all sorts of changes.
“Back then, we were doing it with much more primitive technology,” Eastwood quips while showcasing a new public data portal that has recently launched.
In years past, 211 staffers used to create physical packets with information on community services including nonprofits and churches that can help with a variety of issues.
They used to be staffed 24/7, as well.
Eastwood and the others he works with have all been with the program for more than 10 years. Berlanga has been with it for 14 and they all share a common goal, expand the program.
Chase sees the program as being stifled by its hours and small staff.
They do have automated lines to take over during the times they are not staffed, which can direct people to the right resources, but they can’t see the whole picture, Chase said.
Chase gave an example.
A woman calls in saying she is suicidal because she’s had her kids taken away from her by the state. If the automated system answers, she would be referred straight to a suicide hotline. But if a person answered, they may be able to find out more.
“Why did she get this way?” Chase said. “Is it because she couldn’t afford rent and then couldn’t afford food and then, the next thing she knew, the Department of Child Services was called?”
And more funding can help increase 211’s visibility, and that woman might have called the hotline long before things spiraled out of control to the point that DCS became involved, and workers could have gotten her in touch with the correct services, Chase said.
For Chase and the people he oversees, it’s all about preventing a snowball effect. One crisis leading to another that leads to another and another.
“Inspiring hope to each caller”
Many people who work at the center also have been touched by many of the issues their callers’ face.
In addition to 211, they also run something called the “Warm Line.”
The line is run by someone who has experienced a crisis like homelessness before who can better help someone who is trying to navigate the programs and systems they go through when trying to get back on their feet. More often than not, it ends up being a place for someone to rant or find a friendly voice to help them better understand the system.
Berlanga, who has experienced domestic violence herself, said that the work she does helps her with that history and drives her to do good for those in similar situations.
“What I love about this job is inspiring hope to each caller,” Berlanga said. “I like to hear the smile on the other side of the line.”
On average, she’ll take about 80 calls a day, she said.
Before Crisis Response Network took over the team, there was an emphasis on taking as many calls as possible. But now she said she is able to take her time, making sure each caller gets everything they need.
But even Berlanga admits that not many people are even aware of the program.
Alexandra Zavala, Chief Experience Officer of Crisis Response Network, said that they hope the appropriation of funds could help with that, as well.
They’d like to have a media campaign with billboards, TV ads, newspaper ads and more to bring awareness to the system. However, they don’t want to do it just yet as they worry about overloading their current staff.
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