By LAURA SCHWARTZMAN, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - A three-digit phone number can revolutionize access to social services, according to advocates for low-income Marylanders who are fighting to make 2-1-1 a state-funded fixture.
Social work specialists who receive the calls help people navigate through government bureaucracies and apply for public and private assistance programs, although some suggest improved call responses at social agencies would make 2-1-1 unnecessary.
The number is designated by the federal government specifically for health and human services. More than 40 states and some parts of Canada have the service, which reaches about 65 percent of the U.S. population, according to the United Way.
Advocates say the service also helps with homeland security by providing disaster assistance and can eventually save tax money by eliminating unnecessary calls to other agencies.
The number is still a pilot program in Maryland and will not continue past July without permanent state funding, said United Way of Central Maryland President Larry Walton at a House Health and Government Operations Committee briefing.
Four crisis centers around the state take calls 24 hours a day in 150 languages, serving about 70 percent of the state through Verizon, he said. Notably, Montgomery County is not yet served by the call centers.
"2-1-1 cuts through the confusion of Maryland's more than 500 toll-free and local numbers and helps callers connect to what they need," said Martina Martin, senior vice president for the United Way of Central Maryland and Chair of Planning on the Governor's Health and Human Services Referral Board.
Committee member Shawn Tarrant, D-Baltimore City, said the service is unique in offering access to people who lack computers and public transportation.
"It's a way that they can get better access over the telephone before they make the long trek down to state office buildings," he said.
Michele Hughes, executive director of Life Crisis Center in Salisbury, one of the four pilots, told the committee about a woman who called 2-1-1 looking for winter coats for her children.
"We could've just given her a number," she said. "But our specialists are trained to ask the next question."
By determining in less than five minutes that she was homeless and a victim of domestic violence, the specialist connected the woman to programs she did not initially seem eligible for, Hughes said.
"It's frustrating when you know what you need but you don't know what the government calls it," she said.
The United Way, which provides the service, said it needs about $449,000 to bolster its private sponsorship and sustain the program into June 2009. The number operates in Maryland through Verizon landlines and expanding to other carriers is currently too expensive, Martin said.
The service is funded by a Constellation Energy sponsorship grant, which pays for outreach efforts, phone bills and call specialists.
Committee member Wendell Beitzel, R-Garrett, said 2-1-1 is "a really good idea, obviously" and praised its potential to relieve 911 of certain calls, but would like to see an improvement in existing agencies.
"It's sad that whenever we call a state or federal agency, we can't talk to a live person," Beitzel said. "If we could do that, we probably wouldn't need things like 2-1-1."