“Call 211.” The phrase is a familiar refrain for people who are unhoused or housing insecure. 211 LA is a private nonprofit that has served as the hub for LA County information and referral (I&R) services since 1980. But the 24-hour hotline is chronically underfunded and has very little direct access to housing resources, according to 211 LA, the nonprofit answering the calls.

Things reached a crisis point in early February when cold, wet weather sent thousands of unhoused Angelenos to the agency’s winter shelter hotline. During that activation period, 211 LA received over 13,000 calls seeking emergency shelter but only answered about 5,700 of those calls. 211 LA only has 13 seasonal call-handling staff from November to March dedicated to the winter shelter hotline.

In 2005, the nonprofit secured the 211 dialing code from the California Public Utilities Commission. 211 LA serves as a front door for people seeking housing, food, childcare, or other assistance, but it also manages separate contracts with multiple agencies, including the statewide California vs. Hate hotline, the Safe Surrender Baby hotline, and the Adult Protective Services hotline. During inclement weather, calling 211 is one of the only ways to secure a motel voucher, but numbers are limited; only 372 vouchers were distributed during an early February Augmented Winter Shelter activation period.

In recent years, 211 LA’s relationship with the county has been rocky — twice, the county initiated a Request for Proposal process for 211 services, opening what had been a sole-source contract to other bidders first in 2017, then again in 2021. In 2022, the Board of Supervisors was on the verge of awarding the contract to Deloitte, but deadlocked after an outpouring of support to save 211 LA

Now, the county is once again moving in a new direction. In February, LA County Chief Executive Officer Fesia Davenport told the Los Angeles Times that she is recommending that the county “overhaul” the program. In the face of contract negotiations, the fate of 211 LA is uncertain, even as county and city agencies have pushed 211 LA as the number to call for people seeking housing and shelter.

A problem that money can’t solve?

Maribel Marin, CEO of 211 LA, has acknowledged for years that people are unhappy with wait times, and she points to a lack of funding preventing the team from hiring more people.

“People are frustrated with how long they have to wait, and dropping 23% of our calls or more — depending on what’s happening with weather — really is not the kind of 211 that LA County residents should have,” Marin said.

The solution might seem simple: Give the agency more money to hire more people to answer calls. Not so fast, says LA County. 

“It is not clear that funding is the key driver of longer wait times for our County residents,” said a county spokesperson in an email. “We believe operational improvements can be achieved, which is the reason for considering an overhaul.”

211 LA currently has 65 full-time call handling roles, and a lump sum, core contract with the county funds 48.5 of those positions. 211 LA receives about $9.1 total from the county, including specialized contracts. The agency also has other specialized contracts, primarily with county and state agencies, that fund the other call-handling positions. 

Over a third of the roughly 500,000 calls 211 LA receives per year are from unhoused individuals or families, but the agency is only funded for 1.4 dedicated year-round staff positions and 13 temporary positions during the winter season to handle these calls. This translates to less than two people specifically funded to answer calls from 75,518 unhoused LA County residents for most of the year. 

LA Public Press submitted a detailed list of further questions about why LA County won’t provide more funding and received a statement in response from the county: “LA County anticipates extending its contract with 211 LA, and we look forward to working together to identify ways to improve service to our County residents.”

In response to a question about why 211 LA is only funded for 1.4 operators to handle calls from LA County’s unhoused population, the county said in an email that the core contract funds about 48 call agents, “all of whom are available to field calls from unhoused residents seeking services.”

Marin hopes that not only LA County but also private foundations and corporations will step up to support. “We’re one of the wealthiest economies in the country, in the world,” she said. “And we can’t support a 211 that can get to everyone who needs help? I mean, we’re talking about a few million dollars in an economy of multiple billions.” 

A safety net with no net

According to 211 LA, various entities including the county, city, and the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) tell unhoused people to call 211 for help, when the reality is that the agency has limited access to resources — and not just during winter shelter season.

“LAHSA and many other public agencies regularly inform the public to call 2-1-1 for homelessness support in their digital and recorded messaging,” reads a report from the agency. “Oftentimes, it is misinterpreted by the public as ‘2-1-1 can find you housing.’”

In truth, the agency only has “limited access to emergency or transitional shelter,” according to the report. It isn’t even able to reliably access up-to-date information about shelter availability, information that is controlled by LAHSA and the LA County Domestic Violence Council.

As described in the report, single adults and youth who call 211 looking for shelter (not winter shelter), are given the information for the appropriate Coordinated Entry System (CES) contact, and must contact the provider directly themselves. Motel vouchers are available for crisis housing for families with children or pregnant individuals, but there are only about six available per night after hours, county-wide.

“It’s really hollow to have to call 211 and get told the same things every week,” Sade Kammen, social worker and volunteer with Water Drop LA, told LA Public Press in February. “It’s not 211’s fault that they are overburdened with people looking for resources.”

Canary in the coal mine

Calls to 211 indicate a growing crisis in LA County, according to data provided by 211 LA. Between 2021 and 2023, the number of calls from people identifying as unhoused more than doubled, increasing by almost 100,000 to a total of 169,103. Calls increased as 211 LA became a source for emergency housing vouchers during inclement weather. 

In an article for the LA Times, experts say that hotlines like 211 can serve as an early warning system for social crises and can help government agencies to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable populations.

In fact, after the tipping point of February’s storms, the city of LA is scrutinizing its Augmented Winter Shelter program. This month, LA City Council passed a motion proposed by City Councilmember Nithya Raman to study how to improve the program.

LA County is moving forward with changes to both 211 LA and its internal call centers, which separately handle almost six million calls per year.

In a report submitted to the Board of Supervisors in December, the LA County Chief Executive Officer reported back on the feasibility of bringing 211 services in-house. The report concluded that doing so would neither improve service nor save money. Instead, the report recommends a phased implementation and funding plan for a new cross departmental Service Coordination Team (SCT) and a Community Information Exchange (CIE).

“LA County is the safety net for people who have reached the end of their rope, whether that is physically, financially, or mentally, and 211 is their lifeline to reach us,” Supervisor Janice Hahn said in an emailed statement about the recommendations in the report. “We are exploring ways we can improve 211 to make it as easy as possible for people to get the help they need. That includes figuring out how to better fund 211 and looking at establishing a ‘no-wrong-door’ model so that people can reach every department and every program simply by calling 211.”

Is it a technology problem?

According to 211 LA, the county is not leveraging the agency’s existing knowledge and expertise to build out the Community Information Exchange. “One of the criticisms is that 211 doesn’t have the technology — that you can give them the money, but all they’re going to do is hire people. That is not accurate at all,” said Marin.

The agency would need the funding to build the technology to fully integrate with LA County departments, but it has the technical chops, says Marin. 

The county did not respond to additional questions about why it believes that 211 LA would not improve service with more funding. LA County does have a technology problem, says Marin. “They’re moving towards a more integrated systems approach, because one of their biggest challenges is that their department platforms don’t all talk to each other. So there’s not a single source of truth for clients receiving county services,” Marin said.

LA County is also seeking new funding sources, though it’s unclear what those sources will be. The county did not respond to a question about what kind of public-private partnerships it is seeking.

The county and 211 LA signed a new contract in 2019. So far, that contract extends through June 2025. But things are still uncertain. The agency and the county disagree about basic facts, like the total dollar amount of the current contract and how other 211 programs across the state are funded. The report from December notes that LA’s 211 hotline is unusual in that it receives 93% of its funding from LA County, while 211 San Diego County receives only 5% of its funding from San Diego County. 

211 LA sent documentation to LA Public Press showing that 211 San Diego received 83% of its funding from county and government grants in fiscal year 2020. However, it’s unclear how much of that is from the county.

In response, LA County pointed back to the December report, saying that its numbers are based on publicly available information. 

“I think that they should at least give us a chance to prove that if they gave us the money, we could do it,” Marin said, insisting that additional funding could allow the agency to answer more calls and cut wait times. “Instead of assuming that even if they gave us the money, we couldn’t do it… How do they know?”

Maylin Tu is a freelance writer covering transportation, mobility and equity in Los Angeles.

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