Photo courtesy of the United Way.

Michele Breisinger is often on the phone with someone who is crying.

The first time they talk, the caller is reaching out for help and Breisinger, the lead resource navigator for United Way’s PA 211 Southwest hotline, is the person who answers. Her job title reflects exactly what she does — help people find the resources they need.

Later, when they talk again, either because they are calling back or because Breisinger is calling them to follow up, the tears are those of gratitude.

So many people hear another’s problems and think “I wish I knew a way to help,” Breisinger says. She finds a way. She hooks people up with assistance to keep or get housing, find food, pay their utilities, help an aging relative or themselves, and even get their taxes done.

Surging demand

As the Covid-19 pandemic has put a strain on local services, the 211 system has had to add call takers to keep up with the volume.

In February 2020, before the pandemic, the 211 hotline handled 14,155 calls covering 30 of Pennsylvania’s 66 counties. But that volume ramped up with the shutdown and economic stress that has accompanied the pandemic. In February this year, after the 211 hotline was given the task of scheduling Covid-19 vaccination clinics for Allegheny County, the call takers handled 45,181 calls. Some calls were for traditional services, but the lines were jammed with people trying to access the vaccine.

Michele Sandoe, senior director of United Way’s PA 211 Southwest, says one of the sudden and pressing needs, when the pandemic hit was that families would be quarantined for two weeks and would not have enough food in the house.

“We literally received phone calls from folks who said, ‘We’re not going to have enough formula or diapers to make it through the weekend.’ Part of being the United Way is we can convene for solutions,” Sandoe says. The solution came from the YWCA, which provided volunteers to deliver food to homebound people who were stuck in quarantine.

“It was those days you leave the office going ‘Yeah, I made a difference.’”

Photo courtesy of the United Way.

Needing help for the first time

Breisinger has been with United Way’s PA 211 Southwest line since it started a decade ago and says that it is never too early in a crisis to call the 211 hotline.

“What we’re hearing the most right now is there are people reaching out for the very first time in their life for assistance who were impacted by the pandemic,” Breisinger says.

Callers often have lost their jobs or their full-time jobs were cut to part-time hours.

“They’ve depleted their savings or what little savings they had, if they had any savings at all, and they are waiting for unemployment to come through. They’re needing help with basic needs like food, rent, utility assistance,” Breisinger says. “So it is just a little different now because people are reaching out for the first time.”

Sandoe adds that many of the first-time callers are people who have worked all their lives and put away money for emergencies. “They saved up and then they reached us after they depleted all of their savings … We’ve also seen folks who’ve reached us before, but the depth of the need has increased.”

The United Way’s annual report on the 211 line bears that out. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, the call line answered 46,064 calls related to Covid-19. Overall, the 211 service — through phone calls, texting, live chat and internet requests — saw a 78% increase in people reaching out, with 260,726 contacts reaching out for assistance. From the 2019-2020 fiscal year to 2020-2021, the number of callers needing rental payment assistance increased by 65% to 14,027 calls. And the number of callers who needed help to pay their electric, gas or water bills increased by 12% to 15,673 calls.

While nearly 70% of the calls were from Allegheny County, the first thing that hotline specialists ask callers is their ZIP code, so they can access services in their area. Last year, the ZIP code that had the most callers was Greensburg in Westmoreland County.

Sandoe says the service has evolved beyond just the phone line of 10 years ago. People can also reach 211 by texting 898211 or by visiting the website, which has a chat box.

“I really want to get the message out that 211 is here,” Sandoe says. “We’re here 24/7. At 2 in the morning, we’re here, Christmas Day, we’re here. So when someone needs us, we’re here.”

Ann Belser

Ann Belser is the owner of Print, a newspaper covering Pittsburgh's East End communities. After receiving a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she moved to Squirrel Hill and was a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 20 years where she covered local communities, county government, courts and business.