“We are all here on this earth to serve each other in some way,” Jarissa Johns said.
Johns was a panelist Friday at United Way of Lancaster County’s 211 Day Summit. Held on or around Feb. 11 (2-11), 211 Day celebrates the work of the resource navigators who staff the free 211 social service referral hotline and the hundreds of local nonprofits that provide the help that people are seeking.
Close to 200 participants registered for the summit, which convened at St. Joseph’s University, formerly the Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences. The day featured presentations on 211 and three sets of workshops on local issues, best practices and resources.
Johns is a resource navigator and a specialist in coordinated entry intake — the process of referring people for federally funded housing services.
Her work, she said, is all about connecting with her and her callers’ shared humanity.
“We are community,” she said. “We are people. … We all deal with the same things, the same struggle.”
United Way of Lancaster County staffs and operates PA 211 East. It serves seven counties in central and eastern Pennsylvania, and is part of a network of 211 services that covers all 67 counties in the state.
In 2023, it recorded 113,172 total contacts: Phone calls, online communications, texts and website searches. That’s up 25% over 2022 and is an all-time record, Director Patricia Espinosa-Vargas said.
PA 211 does not provide services itself, but refers people to other nonprofits, agencies and programs. PA 211 East’s database includes 1,574 organizations with a physical presence in the region: Espinosa-Vargas urged nonprofits to keep their listings updated and accurate.
A full half of all inquiries are for housing assistance. Just under another quarter relate to utility assistance and income support. The bulk of income support contacts are to make appointments for VITA, United Way of Lancaster County’s free tax preparation service.
Calls for utility assistance were up 76% over 2022. One possible reason: In fall 2022, Pennsylvania ended the main round of its pandemic utility assistance program, which had distributed about $43 million to nearly 38,000 eligible households. (It was briefly reopened in July and August 2023 before closing for good.)
Johns and her 211 colleagues said their work is difficult but immensely rewarding.
PA 211 East navigators pride themselves on taking their time with callers, rather than jumping immediately to a referral. Damali Flowers, a health resource navigator, described a conversation with an immigrant father who had called for utility assistance and hearing him enthuse about his dream of founding a youth soccer league. She referred him to organizations who could help. That’s a connection that could be transformative, for him and his community, she said.
Calls range from routine to strange to heartbreaking. There are lonely older people who just want someone to talk to for a few minutes. Women and children escaping domestic violence. Families who have been living in their car for weeks. People who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
Frequently, when people are homeless, one of their biggest concerns is their pets, said Nicole Shenk, a resource navigator and quality assurance specialist. In several counties, 211 is able to refer them to shelters that will temporarily house pets while their owners get back on their feet.
PA 211 is not a “closed-loop” system, so in general referrals aren’t tracked to see if they panned out. (The main exception is clients of the Medicaid managed care program UPMC for You, for whom follow-ups are required.) That’s data that would be helpful to have, so last summer, PA 211 East launched a pilot program to make selected follow-up calls.
It had to be suspended in September when PA 211 East transitioned to a new database, but was just relaunched last month.
During the pilot, a little under 140 responses were collected. Most people were satisfied with PA 211 East’s help and were able to contact the agencies to which they were referred. However, only about 40% said the agencies were able to help them.
That’s because of the housing crisis, Espinosa-Vargas told One United Lancaster. People are seeking housing, rental and utility assistance at a scale that simply exceeds what’s available.
The navigators said they speak with many people who feel that no one is listening to them, that no one cares. Showing compassion at those moments can make all the difference, they said.
“When you are communicating with someone, it’s not for you,” Johns said. “It’s for them.”