On a typical weekday, the United Way of Greater Atlanta offices close around 6 p.m., with more than 200 employees filing out of the elevators and into the parking deck to leave for the day.
But, down on the second floor, the lights flicker on and phones continue to ring into the night. United Way’s 2-1-1 service provides 24-7 aid and support to people in need in Atlanta and across the state of Georgia.
2-1-1 is United Way’s program that connects people in this area to resources they need. The daytime staff starts its shift at 7 a.m. with about 14 to 16 agents sitting on calls — it depends on the time of the year and day of the week, says Don Zubler, 2-1-1 operations director.
“They [agents] receive a four-week training that takes them through the taxonomy code and all the verbiage we use,” Zubler said. “They go through a heavy amount of that to look up referrals, and then they go through call flow quality training, some customer-service based training and how to speak to callers in order to guide them through the conversation and maintain a certain type of flow throughout the call.”
Zubler has a staff of five who work the afternoon second shift, and one person sits on the phone to respond to overnight calls.
The program started 21 years ago, Zubler said — he started as an overnight agent, and worked there for a couple of years before working up to operations director. He has been working with 2-1-1 since the beginning.
A service called “First Call to Help” predates the 2-1-1 program, Zubler says. First Call to Help provided the same type of services as 2-1-1. It was a place for people to come to find direction to other social services they needed.
The program expanded and a formed a committee that decided to establish an easy-to-remember three-digit number that would immediately connect people to someone who could provide them with contacts that could give them services they needed.
Now, all 50 states and Puerto Rico have 2-1-1 service. That results in 94.2 percent of the overall population of the United States.
The coverages ranges, Zubler says, but there are now around 250 centers nationwide, including nine in Georgia.
“It varies from different areas,” he said. “It has been a United Way effort to grow 2-1-1, and along with the daily needs of the people… we have become a sort of disaster relief — not to be confused with First Responders. We are able to help them express what the needs are, and we are able to connect them to different services sites.”
United Way of Greater Atlanta reported last year that on average 2-1-1 received around 792 calls Monday through Friday. There were monthly individual web searches of more than 31,000, and there’s more than 380,000 a year. Atlanta’s 2-1-1 office takes calls and gives referrals for the Atlanta area, as well as Macon, Athens, Columbus and, after hours, Augusta, Zubler said. They also take calls for the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Mr. Smith —these names have been changed to keep anonymity— made a call to 2-1-1 seeking assistance with the cost of an extended stay in a hotel.
Smith had a few days left before he would be forced to leave, and he had already contacted agencies for help.
Smith received a call from an agency case worker quickly. He expressed his need, an assessment was made and determined she would help. The case worker reached out to the extended stay to request the partnership, and they agreed to work with the case worker and allow him to stay until they received the check. Smith received assistance in the amount of $1,500 taking care of 6 weeks of extended stay.
Ms. Harris, a single mother, lost her home to an electrical fire. As a result of the unexpected fire, she was homeless, sleeping in her vehicle with her 8-year-old daughter and her pet dog. Harris received hotel assistance from Red Cross, but after two weeks in the hotel, she had nowhere to go.
She contacted a shelter, but the shelter was at capacity. She was told to contact 2-1-1. This woman was contemplating suicide and having thoughts of sending her daughter to live with a friend in New York. She reluctantly contacted 2-1-1.
As the phone rang, she heard the voice of a community support specialist and disconnected the call. She threw her phone on the passenger seat of her car, placed her head on the steering wheel and started to cry.
She looked behind her and her daughter’s eyes filled up with tears. She called 2-1-1 again, was connected to a specialist and was told she might qualify for additional assistance. Two weeks later, she received a rental deposit of $1,244. She moved into a home she could afford with enough room for her daughter and pet dog.
“After fire comes rain, after rain comes sunshine. United Way is the sunshine of my life right now,” she said.
The community can access 2-1-1 by calling, searching online, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, using the 2-1-1 mobile app or by chatting with a call center specialist at 221online.unitedwayatlanta.org.
You can also text your need to 898-211.
“We have around 4,000 agencies that provide support,” Zubler said.
Zubler has worked with 2-1-1 since its inception. Zubler has a degree from Georgia State University with a degree in social work —he also has a degree from University of Georgia in Agriculture. He loves being a part of a program that can provide help and a first step for people in need.
“It’s rewarding to be able to point people in the right direction,” Zubler said. “There’s also the experience of talking to people and learning what the problems are in the community. That’s helpful to know what people are going through.”