- By SUZETTE PORTER
People in need of help in Pinellas can call 2-1-1 Tampa Bay Cares 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
It is “the virtual front door that listens, cares, and if needed, connects people to a local charity that can help them,” according to Executive Director Micki Thompson.
Pinellas County is joining the rest of the nation in recognizing National 2-1-1 Day on Feb. 11.
Thompson revealed the organization’s new mission, “Create connections through the power of information, innovation and hope,” during a Jan. 26 meeting of the Pinellas County Commission.
Thompson explained some the history of the nonprofit organization, which is located in Clearwater and now employs 38 with an annual budget of $3.1 million.
She said its roots go back to a helpline program started in 1970. Pinellas Cares Inc. was established in 1996. In 2000, the helpline joined Pinellas Cares, and name was changed to 2-1-1 Tampa Bay Cares.
Thompson said the local 2-1-1 offers four core services: contact center service, online services portal, mobile app and the Tampa Bay Information Network. Most of its funding comes from the county, $1.4 million, and the Juvenile Welfare Board. Much of the money goes to pay for staff and the $10,000 a month telephone bill.
The organization provides 2-1-1 services 24/7 365 days a year in Pinellas and Hernando counties, and it provides weekend, holiday and evening service in Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties.
Staff stays busy, Thompson said. In fiscal year 2015, 2-1-1 handled 68,844 calls, 7,977 emails and 755 live chats, plus 470 other contacts, including letters and walk-ins.
She touted some of the highlights of the free program, such as its confidentiality and that “real people” answer the phones. The staff also is multilingual, with a capability to communicate in 150 languages.
She said about 32 percent of the calls that come in are about housing and shelter and about 15 percent are about utilities with electric service being No. 1. Another 7 percent are from people with concerns with health care; 5 percent mental health and addictions; 4 percent food and clothing; and 4 percent transportation and legal assistance.
“Every call is a new adventure,” Thompson said. “You never know what’s going to come in.”
Examples of some of the calls answered by 2-1-1 staff included a mother of a 12-year-old whose son is not going to school regularly, a single mother worried about a shut-off notice from the electric company and a single mother with six children, under age 12, who is homeless with no place to go.
Other examples were of a father who is depressed and considering suicide, a young woman with disabilities needing transportation, a senior citizen in need of information about Food Stamps and a guidance counselor looking for resources for a teen father.
She talked about the Family Services Initiative that assists families with minor children by providing “wrap around services” to help “stabilize families preventing them from falling deeper into the system.”
She praised the county’s new Adult Emergency Financial Assistance Program available to residents who earn 200 percent of Federal Poverty Guidelines, which for one person is $23,540 and $31,860 for two people. The program offers a “hand up” to adults without minor children with overdue rent and utilities one time a year. Assistance also is available for adults living in shelters who need help with deposits to get into permanent housing.
Staff is certified by the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, providing them with the skills needed to answer the Pinellas Rape Crisis Hotline, 727-530-7273. Last year, 2-1-1 Tampa Bay Cares handled 724 calls coming into that hotline. In 2015, staff took 928 calls from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or 2-1-1, which is accredited by the American Association of Suicidology.
Thompson described the fourth core of service, the Tampa Bay Information Network, as an “amazing feat,” that allows agencies to share information on how to best move a client through the system. The shared client database has reduced the paperwork for people to get help and allows for analysis of data trends for health and community service network, and helps track shelter availability.
A new service, the 2-1-1 Connects app, is available for Android, iPhone and iPod Touch, which Thompson said allows people to “reach out and tell someone about 2-1-1.”
Pinellas Commissioners thanked Thompson and her staff for their service.
“Thank you for the difference you make in someone’s life,” said Commissioner Karen Seel. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
For more information, visit www.211tampabay.org.