A lifeline for Alaskans
Courtesy of the United Way of Anchorage
An Alaska 2-1-1 operator answering calls from Alaskans who are looking for referrals to services offered in their communities.
In an unforeseeable event or emergency where does one look for help? Not sure where to find the right healthcare or human services assistance? Need a lifeline? It’s as easy as 2-1-1.
United Way of Anchorage operates Alaska 2-1-1, a referral system that connects people throughout the state to a wide variety of vital resources within the caller’s community. Service referrals run the gamut of emergency food and shelter, healthcare, child care, transportation needs, disability services, senior services, legal assistance, counseling, drug and alcohol programs, and more.
“A call to Alaska 2-1-1 starts with a compassionate voice and ends up with timely resources that are accurate,” says Sue Brogan, United Way of Anchorage vice president of Income/Health Impact.
Alaska 2-1-1 is armed with a database of nearly three thousand resources statewide. Every year the United Way of Anchorage ensures the database is updated with current contact information, says Brogan.
United Way of Anchorage has one part-time and four full time staff members taking calls and managing the database for referrals; in addition it partners with many organizations in the process.
Eight Years Running
The use of 2-1-1 as a resource referral line began in the United States in July 2000 when the Federal Communications Commission approved the use of the number, Brogan says. Alaska 2-1-1 did not launch its line until August 2007.
“It wasn’t just the United Way of Anchorage designing the system with our sister United Ways across the state; there were many partners that were with us on the development. It was amazing to see everybody that was interested in having a system like this,” Brogan says.
Funding partners for Alaska 2-1-1 include Alaska Children’s Trust, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, the Municipality of Anchorage, and Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC), among others. Its partnering organizations have financially supported Alaska 2-1-1’s development and have also supported the database that serves all of Alaska, Brogan says.
“Alaska Housing Finance Corporation has a series of programs targeted towards preventing and reducing homelessness and providing housing for people with special needs, and we used to provide funding for a whole list of organizations for information referral. When Alaska 2-1-1 came along, we recognized it as a unique opportunity to fund one entity that can be the information referral system for the entire state,” says Mark Romick, director of planning and program development at AHFC.
AHFC partly funds Alaska 2-1-1 to support operations which allows it to conduct outreach to all regions of the state including rural Alaska, Romick says.
“We stopped funding different organizations for information referral, giving us a chance to reallocate money to direct programs and services that address homelessness,” Romick says.
Alaska 2-1-1 is best described as a coordination of housing and services of organizations throughout the state, he says. To extend AHFC’s reach and further connect the programs it provides and supports, when AHFC gives a grant to a partnering organization it is required to share information on its services with Alaska 2-1-1.
“We also recognize that a system is only as good as the information that’s in it, so we require our grantees to submit their updated program information every year as a condition of their grants,” Romick says.
According to Romick, the biggest challenge in maintaining a system like Alaska 2-1-1 is keeping it updated.
“It’s the difference between using the old Yellow Pages and Yelp. Granted, Alaska 2-1-1 doesn’t have reviews and a social media aspect, but like Yelp it is instantly updated all the time with new information as it comes online—the old version of the Yellow Pages, not so much,” Romick says. “The fact that one organization can update the information for everybody at once—that’s really valuable.”
United Way of Anchorage has proven the significance of Alaska 2-1-1 from the increase in calls and referrals from across the state. Calls have increased statewide by 18 percent, along with a 4 percent increase in referrals and a 22 percent increase in online database searches when comparing January through June 2015 to the same time period in 2014.
“Since our launch we have received nearly 140,000 calls and we’ve made a little over 178,000 referrals,” Brogan says. “One call usually leads to multiple referrals, because one of the real beauties of the 2-1-1 system is that a person calls with one issue and our information and referral specialists are trained to talk to that person and lead one call to three to five different types of referrals.”
The most common type of referral from Alaska 2-1-1 since its inception has been basic needs—food, housing, clothing, rent and utility assistance, and transportation, Brogan says. Basic needs made up for 39 percent of all calls in 2014; healthcare was at 10 percent; and employment and income boosts were also 10 percent.
Alaska 2-1-1 is co-located in the Municipality Emergency Operations Center, and, outside of handling an individual crisis or the needs of a few at a time, call center specialists are trained to handle referrals in times of disaster that may affect a whole community at a time, Brogan says.
Referrals for healthcare may not be the bulk of referrals for Alaska 2-1-1, but they’ve increased 3 percent throughout the state and in Anchorage for the first six months of this year over the same time period in 2014—from 9 percent to 12 percent. One organization that sees the benefits of the Alaska 2-1-1 referral system is the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center, a federally-qualified community health center in Midtown Anchorage that serves more than fourteen thousand patients a year.
“When patients are looking for a clinic they talk to friends, family, or other trusted sources including Alaska 2-1-1, and about 70 percent of our new patients find us because of a good referral. So having an unbiased, easy to reach source like Alaska 2-1-1 is important for identifying people in need,” says Jon Zasada, Development and Marketing director for Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center.
In some cases, people may not have resources like a trusted friend or family member that knows where to go for affordable and dependable healthcare services, and Alaska 2-1-1 fits that need, Zasada says.
“The types of folks that would call Alaska 2-1-1 may be new to the community, they may be reluctant to talk to friends and family about the issues they’re having, or their friends and family just don’t know of the available services off the top of their head,” Zasada says. “The fact that there is an anonymous, reliable source for quality referrals to human service agencies like ours and the others in the system, we feel, is vitally important.”
People seeking referrals can call 2-1-1 from anywhere in Alaska or dial 1-800-478-2221 during normal business hours (Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.) or visit the website 24/7 at Alaska211.org.
“Alaska 2-1-1 has transformed the way we access human services in Alaska. Prior to this it was such a mess and so hard for people to reach those services,” Brogan says. “Alaska 2-1-1 has provided that clarity that you need when you’re looking for help.”
Russ Slaten is an Associate Editor at Alaska Business Monthly.
This article first appeared in the October 2015 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.