When it comes time to grab the phone and dial Orange County’s 3-digit assistance helpline, most people in that situation are on the verge of homelessness.

It might be a matter of days or hours. 

Indeed, a Voice of OC review of seven years’ worth of data, made publicly available by 2-1-1 Orange County, shows that a majority of local residents calling 2-1-1 are looking for help with temporary housing or financial help to stay in housing. 

Yet those calls often lead to nowhere. 

The people on the other side of 2-1-1 say it’s a heartbreaking place to be in Orange County, given a lack of local support services they can connect callers with and the fragmented nature of what does exist, leaving hotline staff unable to connect callers to adequate help – much less any hope. 

The situation has long frustrated 2-1-1 Orange County’s President and CEO, Karen Williams. 

At the same time, Williams looks to a novel, community-driven 2-1-1 program in San Diego County that bridges information-sharing gaps between local nonprofits and service providers, to get people whatever help they can get in a timely manner, and prevent those in need from having to tell their story over and over again. 

Williams said her organization aims to bring that potentially million-dollar-a-year program to Orange County, saying her team is open to involving the County of Orange in efforts to launch it locally.

Falling Through the Cracks

Through the years 2014 and 2020, the volume of inquiries about housing rose above that of other services requests coming into the 2-1-1 helpline — to solitary heights, according to 2-1-1 Orange County’s data.

Many calling 2-1-1 for help have either just lost their home or are about to become homeless, people who work and struggle to pay rent, or recently lost the ability to pay bills, said Williams.

Yet, when 2-1-1 gets a call, both staff and callers often run into major stumbling blocks stemming from limited and fragmented resources and lack of services in the county, she said.

In 2020, 2-1-1 made more than 96,000 services and program referrals to callers in Orange County facing homelessness or the inability to pay for housing, according to annual trends data the organization compiled.

But don’t mistake those referrals for resolutions to those callers’ issues, says Amy Arambulo, 2-1-1’s Director of Community Programs.

Through the years 2014 and 2020, inquiries about housing dominated the call volume coming into the 2-1-1 helpline. Source: 2-1-1 Orange County Annual Trends Report.

Staff at 2-1-1 often don’t know, in a timely manner, whether the services they’re referring people to have the capacity or availability for that person because of the lack of centralized information-sharing across county programs and nonprofit service providers, Arambulo said in a Friday phone interview.

“For people who are at risk of losing their housing, we may refer them to a rental assistance program, but we don’t necessarily know at that moment whether the program has the funding available to cover someone’s whole back payment in rent,” she said.

Another problem is that 2-1-1 staff may connect a caller with an outreach or social worker, but a person out on the street may wait “24 hours until someone gets in touch with them,” Williams, the CEO, said. “It might be a week.”

Not to mention the number of people for whom 2-1-1 couldn’t make program or service referrals at all. 

While 2-1-1 made more than 96,000 referrals in 2020, the organization logged nearly 2,000 instances where referrals were unavailable for people, either because the desired services didn’t exist or the callers were not deemed eligible.

This was the case every year going back to 2014, according to 2-1-1’s data.

These stumbling blocks also make language barriers an issue. 

Arambulo said 2-1-1 might connect someone with a program that’s not available in their language.

“So we might log it as a referral – a met need – but as they’re going over to the program, that issue comes up.”

Emergency homeless shelters are also difficult to navigate, Arambulo said.

“For someone who could become homeless tonight, we may know of shelter which exists near them, but the shelter may not let us know right away whether they have enough available beds or that they can’t accept referrals because it’s a capacity issue there.”

And many callers often end up having to tell their story over and over, due to a lack of information sharing across Orange County’s various service providers, Arambulo said.

“We know there’s actually research showing that retelling a traumatizing event can actually re-traumatize the brain,” Arambulo said.

She also noted a high demand for motel vouchers.

“2-1-1 doesn’t have a direct referral source we’re able to give for motel vouchers although we know they’re available through the coordinated entry system,” Arambulo said. “That’s not a resource we’re able to directly refer them to.”

A ‘Virtual Front Door

Williams says there may be a way to address some of the obstacles to her organization, which started in 1984 and saw the inception of its actual phone hotline in 2005 – a simple, toll-free, easy-to-remember number that could mean the difference for people facing food insecurity and other emergencies.

The goal of 2-1-1 Orange County – fueled by a combination of funding sources, including the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development – is to be an over-the-phone resource linking the region’s most vulnerable with health and social services.

There’s an effort to get a more coordinated system up and running at the organization – an online “community exchange,” as Williams calls it, “about bringing the fragmented services together.” 

It could help address the issue of callers having to explain their situation multiple times, Arambulo said.

“In implementing the exchange, we can hear their story once, create one profile for them, then send it over to a partner who might be able to help them but won’t have to collect that information over and over again.”

It’s inspired by the existing “Community Information Exchange” hosted by San Diego’s 2-1-1 hotline service – a shared resource database and standardized listing of local health, human, and social services providers’ service offerings, eligibility, and intake information.

Orange County’s 2-1-1 call volume exploded when the Covid-19 pandemic began, Williams said.

“We discovered that we were a virtual front door for services around the county,” she added.  If her organization could create a centralized information database across the various nonprofit service providers with which call center staff connect people, “we could take some of that administrative burden off the nonprofit agencies doing the work.”

To put it simply, 2-1-1 Orange County’s Community Information Exchange program might help address the issues facing people on the verge of homelessness, Williams said. 

But it costs money. 

Some Solutions on the Way?

“In terms of fishing up the build on it, we’re probably talking about another $1.5 million and somewhere around that level as an operational run piece,” Williams said. “Maybe $1 million year-over-year, which really has more to do with call center staff to make sure we are able to run.”

Asked whether the effort has County of Orange support and financing, Williams said that’s something her team is having conversations about. 

Reached for comment over the phone on Jan. 19, Orange County Supervisor Doug Chaffee said, “I wasn’t aware they were having problems connecting (people).”

Chaffee, asked whether the County of Orange should help fund and support 2-1-1’s infrastructural upgrade efforts to coordinate with nonprofits and service providers across the county, said, “I wasn’t aware of the details you’re giving me but we do need 2-1-1 to be a super-source of help.” 

“I think I will follow up with some questions to people as to where that stands.”

Williams says 2-1-1 Orange County expects to roll out a pilot program for the Community Information Exchange in March.

The problem facing many callers ties back to an ongoing regional housing affordability crisis, Williams said.

“We have never really had enough beds for people to go to or even enough apartments. It’s been exacerbated now by people having a hard time finding housing at all.”

2-1-1 Orange County’s President and CEO, Karen Williams

The County of Orange “needs to take the initiative,” said Brooke Weitzman, an attorney with the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center.

Even if 2-1-1 had a surefire way to get people into the limited available shelter beds which exist in the county, Weitzman said shelters are not the panacea. 

The 2-1-1 call center “can’t provide services that don’t exist” until the county gets ahead of the housing side of the equation, Weitzman said.

“You’re articulating a problem that I’ve seen as a council member and mayor, for a long time,” said Tustin Mayor Letitia Clark during a Jan. 18 phone interview, regarding the situations of 2-1-1 callers. She recently joined 2-1-1’s Board of Directors. 

These callers are people “who live on someone’s couch or in a living room or in a garage or in their car sometimes, and they’re able to get kids to school every day and maybe the kids are getting fed but they don’t have a job or ability to pay a security deposit,” Clark said.

There have been times when someone on the verge of homelessness calls the hotline and staff gives them a voucher, but they’re ultimately left to find housing on their own, Williams said.

“Think about it, you’re living at a bus stop, or a bench, you may have a phone, but how are you going to go ahead on your own and find an apartment to live in?” Williams said. “My staff always gets tired of me saying this, but the devil’s in the details — it takes a lot of effort from a lot of different people to actually get people help.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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