211 Helpline Connects Cook County Residents to Health and Social Services: ‘It’s Those Everyday Emergencies’

Have you heard of 211? It’s a free hotline connecting people to everyday services — from housing resources to utility payment assistance.

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The 211 hotline is working to make connecting with health and social service support easier.

WTTW News visited a call center.

“The space here houses our contact center,” said Gabriel Garcia, the director of the 211 Resource Navigation Center. “Our team members here play a role in our 211 operations responding to the callers in need.”

211 Metro Chicago is a free 24-hour helpline that serves Chicago and the suburban Cook County area. It’s essentially a referral service with an extensive database of organizations and businesses.

“Housing is the biggest one, according to our data; others are access to food,” Garcia said. “When someone calls, we right away ask for their ZIP code, where you are located. From there we can say, ‘I don’t know if you have a car, or a bus card, but there is a food pantry two blocks from your home.’”

Desni Holmes is one of the resource navigators on the other end of the line.

“I actually went to school for human services, so this is what I want to do to make a difference,” Holmes said.

That’s how Holmes was able to help South Side resident Derrick Macon find assistance with his gas bill.

“If she gave me a number and these people wouldn’t answer, she would give me another number,” Macon said. “I had a pad with all these numbers and kept calling.”

Macon connected with a church that helped him pay a portion of his utility bill.

“I’m grateful for her (Holmes),” Macon said. “If it wasn’t for her, I would have no gas.”

Sean Garrett, the president and CEO of United Way of Metro Chicago, spearheaded the initiative. It’s a mission driven to navigate people through challenging situations.

“We like to say it’s those everyday emergencies that people are calling about,” Garrett said. “So it might be housing. It might be food. It might be getting connected with a job. It might be utilities assistance. It really runs the whole gamut of human services. Anyone in Cook County can call 211 and get connected to those resources.”

It’s a partnership between United Way, the city of Chicago and Cook County. 

“The service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Cook County Broad President Toni Preckwinkle said. “We have bilingual services in English and Spanish, but whatever language you call in, we will find someone who can translate for you.”

The center has been in operation for nearly a year, and Garrett said he’s hoping more people take advantage.

“Those resources are out there,” Garrett explained. “It’s how do we take individuals who are in a time of need and get them connected.”

The 211 hotline has assisted more than 100,000 people across Cook County. The service is free, and you can reach them by calling, texting or asking a question through the 211 Metro Chicago website.

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