2-1-1: The 24 Hour Crisis Hotline for Disaster Relief and More

Two children play in the living room. The world is quiet. A caregiver stands nearby, notices a strange smell. On any other day caring for little ones, there would be no cause for alarm. Today, she will have just seconds to save them.

It’s not a fantasy. In an instant, hundreds of Lawrence residents went from a calm fall day to chaos when the gas lines beneath their homes burst. Fires raged, houses vanished, and the day wasn’t half over.

In the face of such disaster, it can be tough to know where to turn. That’s why United Way’s 2-1-1 call line exists. 2-1-1 is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week hotline design built for both catastrophic events and more everyday challenges. The number’s there for those looking for housing or shelter assistance, advice or help with childcare and early education, or who need to talk about mental or emotional trauma.

2-1-1 provides highly-trained representatives who can connect callers with emergency housing, food, childcare, or myriad other things that come unraveled in a time of crisis.

The Power of Everywhere

Powered by United Way and available throughout the US and parts of Canada, 2-1-1 provides immediate, specialized assistance for a variety of problems, including its position as the official hotline for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Association (MEMA) during storms or other emergencies.

Call center staff live in the regions they serve, so representatives are familiar with the communities where help is needed, and understand the resources available.

While the 2-1-1 crisis hotline’s ultimate goal is to connect callers to the resources they need, agents are often cast in the role of crisis manager, as either the first person a caller talks to when disaster strikes, or the last person they confide in when they’re about to give up hope. Mass211 alone responds to more than 250,000 such calls every year.

2-1-1 connects callers to:

  • supplemental food and nutrition programs
  • shelter and housing options and utilities assistance
  • emergency information and disaster relief
  • employment and education opportunities
  • child care resources
  • services for veterans
  • mental health and suicide prevention services
  • health care, vaccination and health epidemic information
  • addiction prevention and rehabilitation programs
  • reentry help for ex-offenders
  • support groups for individuals with mental illnesses or special needs
  • a safe, confidential path out of physical and/or emotional domestic abuse

2-1-1 is a confidential service, so callers can feel safe and speak freely without judgement. Agents speak multiple languages and are trained to communicate with diverse populations in their native tongues.

The Lawrence Response

During the recent gas explosions in Lawrence, 2-1-1 representatives provided a lifeline to those who called after suddenly finding themselves with nowhere to sleep and no idea how they would rebuild their lives.  

“Many residents told us they were put at ease knowing Mass211 agents were local to them, and that they truly had a real sense of what was going on in their communities,” according to Paul Mina, President and CEO of United Way of Tri-County and the Executive Director of Mass211, “They were so appreciative of the guidance and connections 2-1-1 representatives made for them, getting them in touch with other local services, organizations, and charities the first time they called.”

For residents without a clear picture of the immediate future, it was also a huge relief to not be bounced around, going from phone line to phone line without answers. It was heartening for many to have 2-1-1 ready to help them. “People understood that we cared. Our agents stayed on the line with them for as long as necessary.”

When it comes to disasters, knowledge is vital. More than that, having someone willing to stick with you, to listen, and provide a solution in an impossible situation — it’s an invaluable service, even over the phone. 2-1-1 is available to provide that level of service, every day, no matter when or why it’s needed.