Interview with Maribel Marin, 211LA Executive Director
2-1-1 is the number that over 400,000 people in Los Angeles County call every year when looking for food, shelter, and other crisis and disaster services including during the ongoing COVID pandemic when calls for assistance nearly doubled. 211 LA is the non-profit organization that has provided this 24/7 helpline service since 1981 when it was known as INFO LINE of Los Angeles. It was authorized by the Public Utilities to use the 3-digit dialing code to provide its information and referral services throughout Los Angeles County and 2-1-1 has now been available since 2005.
A recent caller to 211 LA inquired about support for food and utility assistance but kept referring to his sore neck while speaking to a CRA, after providing the requested referrals, the CRA asked the caller about his neck whereby they revealed that they had attempted to hang themselves earlier that day. The CRA was able to further assist the caller with mental health and counseling referrals. Another caller was receiving referrals for food support when they recounted an experience of harassment and bullying at a food delivery site that resulted in a hate incident report and victim compensation. Callers share this sensitive information with CRAs because 211 LA is a trusted source of information and people feel cared for, attesting to this in customer satisfaction surveys.
About 63 community resource advisors (CRAs) answer 2-1-1 calls around the clock, about 2,000 calls every weekday, with 48 CRAs funded by 211 LA’s contract with the County of Los Angeles. These staff and those that support the maintenance of the resource referral database are represented by SEIU 721 as well as maintain professional certification with the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems, the national industry association. 211 LA does not use volunteers to provide 2-1-1 service because the work requires a great deal of training and skill that people should be compensated for.
CRAs train for 5-6 weeks to start and receive ongoing training year-round to stay current with important service changes and to learn how to work effectively with vulnerable populations and people in crisis. 211 LA provides services in all languages spoken in LA County through bilingual English/Spanish CRAs and a third-party interpretation service for other languages. 211 LA’s CRAs and Resource database specialists are dedicated professionals with an average of 10 years of tenure including a number of multi-generational employees whose parents were I&R pioneers and standard setters.
211 LA provides more than 2-1-1 call handling and staffs other well-known countywide and statewide hotlines including the County of LA’s Elder Abuse line since 1984, the Winter Shelter hotline since 1993, and the statewide Safely Surrendered Baby Hotline since 2002. 211 LA also provides crisis housing vouchers and other supports for homeless families during afterhours, weekends and holidays and vulnerable populations including seniors and people with disabilities during public utility power shutoffs. It has served as the hate incident reporting and victim support hotline since 2019 as part of the LA vs Hate initiative and it has recently been selected by the State Department of Civil Rights as the service provider for the CA vs Hate initiative.
Though mostly known as the countywide 2-1-1 service agency, 211 LA has between 15-20 additional services at any given time and a growing number are specialized services that link target populations with more person-centered care and longer-term follow-ups and supports. This model of service engages community-based organizations in a collaborative approach to client care such as the RELINC effort, a partnership between 211 LA and LARRP that started in 2019. RELINC leveraged the fact that every month, over 1,000 formerly incarcerated individuals were calling 2-1-1 for help with basic needs and several LARRP member agencies like Paving the Way and Christ Centered Ministries were offering more comprehensive service navigation and employment supports. Through coordinated efforts the RELINC partnership connected people who were not aware of these more comprehensive services and provided follow-up support to ensure that services were being received.
211 LA has a number of other similar collaborative efforts such as serving as a core partner in the Aging Disability Resource Center providing connections to care coordination and assistance to seniors and people with disabilities and the Social Connections Partnership that links vulnerable and health-impacted individuals with social services and follow-up care. A key learning from this work is that client outcomes are improved in a measurable way when service providers establish clear communication pathways for coordinating service delivery and for holding each other accountable.
This work resembles the collaboration in surrounding counties like San Diego, Riverside, and Ventura where there is growing investment in integrating 2-1-1 services with healthcare, housing and other basic needs resource agencies so that a simple information and referral call can become a lifeline for vulnerable callers to connect to more intensive follow-up services and supports. However, in Los Angeles County, 2-1-1 dialing remains primarily funded as a basic information and referral service and its great ability to serve as a natural bridge for the County’s most vulnerable populations to deeper care is not being realized. In fact, most recently, 2-1-1 services were being considered by the County, its primary funder, for automation and outsourcing to a for-profit corporation with no experience or even any existing call center staff at the time of the contract award consideration. Luckily, and through the help and support of LARRP and many of its members, this action was averted but the future of 2-1-1 as a service provided by a community-based agency with local, tenured staff is still not secure.
Despite this current uncertainty, 211 LA remains dedicated to ensuring that every day, 2-1-1 calls get answered with compassionate care by knowledgeable people. Personally, as the executive director of 211 LA for the past 21 years, I am motivated and driven every day by the passion and commitment that the 211 team has for its core mission of being ready when someone reaches out to us in crisis or in need of help. Being the captain of an awesome and innovative team makes me want to come to work every day! I stay at 211 LA because over the years I have had the greatest opportunities to work closely with others at the front lines, deploying services to address the most significant social ills such as homelessness, food and income insecurity, aging and chronic disease, domestic and elder abuse, mental illness, suicide, and substance use. I am never bored because my work is challenging, meaningful and quite an adventure with the highs outnumbering the lows. I live in LA, raised my two daughters here, and feel privileged to have a career that allows me to be of service in a way that seeks to bring more love and understanding and make our County a better place to live.