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Vermont to restore 24/7 access to 211 emergency line — in two weeks

Published: 11/21/2019 10:08:22 PM
Modified: 11/21/2019 10:08:11 PM

In two weeks, Vermont will restore 24-hour access to 211, the state’s emergency referral line, which has been available only between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. since Oct. 1.

Advocates have called the current situation an “emerging crisis.” The line is often used by those seeking emergency housing, and homeless shelter officials raised alarm that the homeless could die when winter storms start rolling in and have no one to call for help after hours.

The Agency of Human Services has freed up the $162,000 needed to restore around-the-clock access to 211 starting on Dec. 6 and running through the winter, according to Sean Brown, deputy commissioner of the Economic Services Division at the Department for Children and Families.

Under a contract negotiated with a call center in New Hampshire, the 211 line for emergency housing services will be extended through April 30, and general assistance call service will be available through June 30. The call center will provide calling assistance from midnight to 8 a.m. Additional in-state staff will take calls until midnight, starting Dec. 1.

Brown said AHS was able to reallocate money in its budget for now to cover these costs, but his office will ask for additional funding during the budget allocation process in January.

Apart from seasonal housing emergencies, 211 also provides support for Vermonters who need advice on an array of issues — from heating fuel subsidies to mental health services, substance abuse support and legal assistance.

The call service has been available 24/7 in previous years. In 2018, 211 received 3,514 calls related to after-hours emergency housing in total, according to data reviewed last month by the Advisory Council on Child Poverty and Strengthening Families. Of those calls, 2,720 came in during weekends or holidays.

211 was receiving between 80 and 120 calls per weekend that it could not respond to as of Oct. 24, MaryEllen Mendl, executive director of United Way of Vermont, told the advisory council.

Mendl said United Way, which operates the 211 service, had previously outsourced calls to a contractor for $40,000 a year. However, the lowest bid on a new contract was $286,000, leaving United Way without the money to continue the service.

Legislators expressed frustration last month that neither United Way or the Agency of Human Services had brought the issue to their attention before it became a problem.

The Department for Children and Families said it has been providing extended emergency housing placements to those in need, as an interim measure to keep people out of the cold.

Brown said he’s glad that 24/7 access will soon be restored. “But I wish we could have found a solution sooner,” he added.

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