INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Demand for help offered through Indiana’s 2-1-1 system is soaring beyond available funding, forcing the state’s 11 centers to try to suppress demand by not aggressively marketing the service.
Organizers say the only way to prevent tens of thousands of people from getting busy signals or hanging up before they can be helped is more money. But lawmakers haven’t been inclined to pitch in.
The Indiana 2-1-1 Partnership has been trying for years to secure state funding to help pay for the service. The House version of last year’s budget included $500,000 for the service, but the appropriation was cut in the Senate, the Indianapolis Business Journal reported.
Local officials have tried to provide money for 2-1-1 services in their communities, but those resources are dwindling too, said Lucinda Nord, vice president of public policy at the state United Way association.
“A lot of (lawmakers) love 2-1-1, but there aren’t many who champion it above everything else,” she said. “No one is willing to fall on their sword for it.”
The lack of money has led to cuts in the number of call centers statewide. The system had 15 at one point but now has 11. A merger of two northern Indiana centers next month will leave the state with 10.
Shari Morgan, operations director at an Indianapolis center that is the busiest in the state, said resource specialists never know what they’ll be dealing with when they answer the phone. The requests to Connect2Help could be for energy assistance or food, child-care assistance or even suggestions on where a woman can take her children to flee an abusive home.
“We have a saying around here: ‘Every phone call changes the world,’” Morgan said. “If a family eats tonight because we helped them find a food pantry, the world is that much better than it was.”
The Indianapolis center received more than 265,000 calls last year, a volume that ranked it fifth in the nation. The agency made nearly 584,000 free referrals in the year ended June 30.
But Morgan said tens of thousands of callers hang up before a specialist can answer, and others encounter busy signals when all 46 lines are in use.
Call volume statewide rose about 73 percent from 2007 to 2011, according to a study by Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
Most of the service’s funding comes from philanthropic organizations such as United Way of Central Indiana, which provides about half of Connect2Help’s $1.9 million annual budget.
The 2-1-1 Partnership also won a contract to provide outreach for Indiana’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.
The funding that comes with such initiatives helps, Nord said, but it’s not enough. Counting local contributions, about $3.5 million is invested in the state’s system now, she said. Advocates estimate it will take $6 million to $9 million a year to fully fund the program.
Nord said the network has “eked out every efficiency you can imagine” and doesn’t aggressively market the service, but needs keep growing.
“Call volumes are through the roof, hold times are longer, and people are hanging up,” she said. “That’s not good and we know that. It’s a real challenge.”