Calls to 211 Helpline Center rising again after post-pandemic lull
Lawmakers worry about program funding when federal money runs out
A sigh outside the Sioux Falls, SD location of the Helpline Center, one of three call centers across the state that connects callers to a range of services. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
Mental health calls to South Dakota’s 211 Helpline declined as the COVID-19 pandemic tapered off, but calls for all needs – especially for housing help – are on the rise again.
That was among the major takeaways from a Department of Social Services (DSS) presentation on the operations of the statewide assistance call center on Thursday in Pierre.
The rundown was presented to the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee, meeting for a pre-session roundup of reports from a range of state agencies.
Appropriators expressed appreciation for the program, but some concerns about ongoing funding needs, regional Helpline usage and post-referral follow-up with callers.
Helpline state expansion began in pandemic
The Helpline Center’s statewide service expansion and the state government funding partnership that came alongside it are both relatively recent developments for the nonprofit agency, which launched in 2001 in Sioux Falls. The 211 center had grown its footprint significantly by the time of that 2020 statewide expansion, with only rural areas remaining outside its service area.
The center works to connect callers with resources in their local area. Housing, food assistance and mental health referrals are heavily represented in the center’s call type statistics, but callers and texters frequently ask about transportation options, as well. Seasonally, callers might reach out to ask for help shoveling snow or ask where a local leaf drop-off might be.
The state began to offer supplemental funding to the nonprofit in 2020. The state budgeted $889,151 for the center in fiscal year 2023, which runs from August of 2022 through July of 2023. That’s a jump of $70,000 from its first fiscal year of state funding.
Contacts to the Helpline Center spiked during the pandemic, dropped slightly in fiscal year 2021, but haven’t fallen back to 2019 levels. In fiscal year 2022, there were nearly 12,000 more calls than FY 2019.
The current trendline points to continued growth in usage, according to Tiffany Wolfgang, who leads behavioral health programs for the DSS.
“Right now we’re projecting about a 7% growth in 211 calls for fiscal year 2023,” Wolfgang told lawmakers.
Housing remains the largest area of need, growing 5% even as other call types slowed down during the last year and into the summer. Wolfgang cautioned lawmakers that callers frequently have multiple questions for operators, however.
“Somebody may call in wanting help meeting housing assistance, (but) they may need additional food assistance,” she said.
Mental health calls fell as pandemic pressures eased, she said, but have ticked up again. The recently announced nationwide move to a 988 suicide prevention line also factors into the Helpline Center’s work. Master’s degree-level counselors at the center answer those calls.
The move to the shorter 988 number from the previous 1-800 number hotline, Wolfgang said, has resulted in an 87%increase in calls in South Dakota.
Lawmakers question follow-up, future funding
Legislators on the joint committee had several questions for Wolfgang as they pondered the state’s contributions to the center’s budget.
Sen Jean Hunhoff, R-Yankton, for example, noted that 79% of calls originated in Minnehaha or Pennington counties, and said she hopes the program is able to connect to rural areas more often now that state funding is part of the operation.
Rep. Linda Duba, D-Sioux Falls, brought up similar concerns.
“I want to know if the low numbers (outside Minnehaha and Pennington) are due to lack of knowledge, or there’s just no need?” said Duba, who said she hopes to see a report on marketing efforts during future appropriations meetings.
Other committee members had customer service questions. The center does follow-up calls on issues like substance abuse and mental health, Wolfgang said, but she said there isn’t necessarily follow-up for every call type.
“I don't understand how we can determine if the 211 is actually doing what it needs to do if we don't know if (the resource agency) they're being referred to is actually making progress with the person who called in,” said Rep. Liz May, R-Kyle.
Committee Chair Chris Karr, R-Sioux Falls, suggested that an audit of customer service contacts and follow-up would be helpful as appropriators.
“I can train my people all day long, but are they executing?” Karr said. “And one way to do it is to test that or audit it.”
Karr also questioned the program’s funding future, noting that the initial state funding originated with money from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
“Currently, we are funded (by ARPA) through the state fiscal year, and we are assessing what the options may be after that,” Wolfgang said.
May wondered aloud if tribal governments could pitch in funding for the 988 portion of the work. Rep. Taffy Howard, R-Rapid City, said she is concerned that the 211 funding could become a burden for the state once the ARPA money dries up. She wanted to know if there are programs beyond 211 boosted by ARPA grants that could soon seek additional funding from appropriators.
“I thought we had the phone to South Dakota that one time funds would not be used for ongoing programs, or for dollars or one time funds, and this would appear to be an ongoing program,” Howard said.
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Future of 211
Janet Kittams, director of the Helpline Center, said her organization has worked to connect with potential users in newly serviced areas through social media and outreach to service providers across the state.
The center has brochures, fridge magnets and other materials available to send to social service offices anywhere in the state.
“We always have our 211 promotional materials available,” said Kittams, who was listening in to the appropriations meeting on Thursday. “Through our website, you can go and order materials and then we just deliver them or mail them. If people want to pick them up, they can, but we can mail them anywhere in the state.”
As far as a high volume of calls in Minnehaha and Pennington counties, Kittams expects that to shift as residents statewide familiarize themselves with the center’s operators.
“I would anticipate that we'll continue to see calls to 211 from other parts of South Dakota, which we do now,” Kittams said. “But I think we'll see a greater percentage coming from the areas that are just learning about 211.”
Sen. Jack Kolbeck, R-Sioux Falls, told his fellow lawmakers during the meeting that the center plays an important role in responding to resident needs, particularly during natural disasters. His experience with 211, he said, suggests that the nonprofit’s commitment to customer service is clear in communities that have relied on it for years.
In some situations, Kolbeck said, 211 even serves as a connection between volunteers and those who need help.
“I'll tell you in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, after the tornadoes that went through the flooding that we had, I called the 211 number a couple of different times to ask if there was any assistance that needed to be done,” Kolbeck said. “Within minutes I would get a call back, and they would give me a list of people that had called 211 and needed some assistance, not only maybe just clean up, but maybe even some assistance getting their front door of their house opened up … (the residents) were very, very much appreciative of that.”
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