United Way of Lancaster Asks for Assistance
As a result of discussions within our newly formed Lehigh Valley Homeless Veterans Action Committee (LVHVAC) about the loss of the local Red Cross’ Valley Wide Helpline, which had been a valuable resource to the local social services community, and because it considers a common telephone resource line for homeless and near-homeless veterans and their families an essential service, LVMAC invited Toni McCuistion, Director for PA 2-1-1 East, United Way of Lancaster, to speak on the topic of “2-1-1 Service in the Lehigh Valley, How It Can Help Veterans, How You Can Help It” at its March 19 Council business meeting.
The United Way has been funding this initiative nationwide. The intention is that the toll-free 2-1-1 telephone number does for human services what the 9-1-1 number has done for emergency assistance. The effort also includes an open access database. Begun in the year 2000 in Atlanta, Georgia, the movement has grown – Pennsylvania being the last state to join the effort.
In Pennsylvania, the 2-1-1 network is currently divided into 9 regions. Each region has a lead agency, normally a United Way organization in one of the counties of that region, but it can be another nonprofit organization. The Lehigh Valley is part of what is known as the PA 211 East region. This region consisting of Lehigh, Northampton, Lancaster, Lebanon, Schuylkill, Carbon and Berks counties is managed by the United Way of Lancaster operating out of its long-established call center.
The initiative in this state has not been without its problems. For example, the Northwest Region does not have this service because a lead agency has not been found. The Southeast region currently operates its own database which is tied into the New Jersey database, instead of Pennsylvania’ because the Philadelphia area is so closely aligned with southern New Jersey and did not want to delay. Additionally, the system does not generally ask if the caller is a veteran – the importance of the question lies in special services available to military veterans through the Departments of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Defense, the Social Security Administration, other federal agencies and veterans service organizations.
Nevertheless, the system does have natural advantages. It has a 24/7 capability. It has proven adaptable. As an example, during natural disasters it has demonstrated its ability to handle high volumes of traffic work by routing calls to other regions and states when the local regional call center becomes overloaded. Importantly, the system makes referrals or provides advice for a very broad range of human needs.
While other systems do exist – such as Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC) PA Link and the Trilogy Service’s Network of Care which is used by the counties under a Dept. of Public Welfare (OMHSA) contract – they are more limited in scope and may fail to offer a person on the other end of a telephone line. The latter was a key point made my Ms. McCuistion. There is the need to have someone assess by listening what help is really needed. Indeed, it is this ability and the system’s potential to be a one-source with an easily remembered telephone number that attracts LVMAC to the initiative, although it would have preferred a more locally stationed system.
The servicing regional system experienced a ten percent growth in calls last year. However, the service in the Lehigh Valley counties of Lehigh and Northampton is underused in comparison with the Lancaster area for a roughly comparable population size – about 200-250 calls a month versus 4,500 a month. The United Way and others need to do more marketing and advertising of this service locally.
PA 211 East is also trying to expand its database in the Lehigh Valley and the areas north in its service range to make it more useful. LVMAC thinks it can help. The Veterans Affairs Committee will use its homelessness committee, LVHVAC, as the tip of the spear, since homelessness touches practically every area of human services.
At the Council meeting, Rich Hudzinski, the Chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee remarked the state’s Office of Veterans Affairs, part of its National Guard bureaucracy, has been interested in developing a statewide list of veterans’ resources. On February 11, the topic came up again at the first meeting of the Governor’s Advisory Committee for Veterans Services, formed to overcome the serious problem of coordination of actions among Commonwealth departments that affect veterans. While useful, LVMAC thinks the development of yet another resource guide or website is not the primary underlying need.
Rather, it is a manned, uniform-service referral network properly developed, marketed and advertised statewide which he believes is more needed. The United Way’s 2-1-1 system happens to provide a convenient opportunity to consider consolidating disparate, frequently redundant, and sometimes dubious efforts in veterans’ information and referral services, which can deter those most fragile and in need of assistance – if a joint venture or alliance were to be considered by the Commonwealth and the United Way. Veterans affairs systems need to learn to use general human service information and referral systems to their advantage and human services organizations need to learn more about services available to veterans to better serve their clients.
Meanwhile, LVMAC will try to help improve the 2-1-1 referral network on behalf of the military, veterans and their families in the Lehigh Valley. It is sometimes forgotten by all that what may benefit the general community in satisfying basic human needs, may also benefit our military servicemembers, veterans and their families. After all, they are citizens first.
Click here for the slide presentation given and for more information and on how you can help, to include adding to the database as a service provider.
As of 24 March 2014