Budget to offer hotline aid

TheStar.com – Ontario – Budget to offer hotline aid
March 17, 2008
Kerry Gillespie, Queen’s Park Bureau

A telephone hotline that helps Ontario’s most vulnerable people access 60,000 different social service programs will get a funding boost in next week’s budget, the Star has learned.

People using the free service include abused women trying to find emergency shelter, seniors looking for meals on wheels programs and frustrated new immigrants calling to find job training opportunities.

United Way of Canada, on behalf of Ontario 211, the agency that runs the system, has asked the government for $24.3 million over four years, with $3.5 million in the first year.

But sources say Ontario 211, which was first launched in Toronto in 2002, won’t get as much funding as it wants in the provincial budget on March 25. However, it’s not known how much it will receive.

By June, half of Ontario’s residents will have access to 211, an information and referral service about community, social, health and government programs. The service, which the United Way wants to expand province-wide, is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Currently, 211 service is available in Toronto, Halton, Windsor-Essex, Niagara, Simcoe County and Thunder Bay. Peel gets the service in May and Ottawa in June.

The hotline should be particularly attractive to the current Liberal government because of its focus on poverty, said Bill Morris, manager of the Ontario 211 initiative for the United Way of Canada.

“(It’s) ideally suited to become a foundational element in Ontario’s efforts to reduce poverty,” he said.

Full funding in the coming budget would mean hotlines in Niagara and Simcoe, which are in danger of closing, would be saved and the 211 service could be expanded to the entire province within four years.

Partial funding would mean existing 211 programs – which will reach about 6 million people after Peel and Ottawa begin service – could continue but expansion plans will be slowed or halted, Morris said. Sherri knows just how valuable a service like 211 is.

She and her disabled husband don’t have a lot of money so when their 4-year-old daughter broke her hand-me-down bed last month they couldn’t afford to replace it.

“One of us would have been sleeping on the floor,” said Sherri, who lives south of Windsor and didn’t want her last name used.

She wondered whether there were any programs that could help but didn’t know where to start. So she dialled the Windsor-Essex 211.

“They gave me so many options. When one option would run out they’d give me another one and I ended up getting a bed and the people I got the bed from let me take it without paying for it. Everybody all around was so wonderful, it was unbelievable,” Sherri said.

“They called me to follow up and see if I got anywhere. That was really nice, too. Normally that doesn’t happen.”

Morris knows it’s tough to get a slice of Ontario’s multi-billion dollar budget.

“It’s a competitive market for good ideas,” he said.

But the United Way has pushed hard to point out 211 helps reduce poverty by making sure low-income and vulnerable families and singles get the services they need to improve their lives, he said.

Navigating Ontario’s network of social programs, run by three different levels of government and countless community agencies, is challenging for anyone.

But for someone who can’t afford a phone or can’t make calls during business hours or doesn’t speak English, it’s downright impossible.

Getting help shouldn’t be a matter of who you know or what you know, Morris said, adding: “211 levels the playing field.”

It’s free from a payphone, operates 24 hours a day and staff can speak 150 languages, he said.

In its budget two years ago, the province provided $4.4 million in funding, allowing 211 to expand from three communities to six, showing it believes in the value of the service, Morris said.

And now that Premier Dalton McGuinty has promised to reduce poverty – and come up with reduction targets so government can be measured on its progress – 211 is more valuable than ever, Morris said.

It provides up-to-date data on the demand for specific services, can identify resource gaps or duplication and improves overall efficiency by getting people to the right service with one call, he said. Currently, people looking for social services make an average of five to seven calls before they find what they want, consuming valuable staff time, he said.

Toronto, which has had the social service phone line since 2002, proved twice in 2003 that it can pinch hit in an emergency, too.

In March 2003, Toronto was hit by an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that killed some 44 people and led to quarantines and travel advisories.

The public focus was largely on health-care workers but SARS decimated the tourism industry and put thousands of low-income hospitality employees out of work. Staff at 211 helped hook them up with assistance ranging from immediate emergency food and housing support to longer term retraining programs, Morris said.

In August 2003, Toronto was hit by a massive power failure that left people without electricity for hours.

Staff at 211 took calls from people looking for help – calls that could have clogged up the 911 emergency lines, Morris said.

Former Star publisher John Honderich was a director of Honderich Investments, a family holding company, when it donated money to ensure the Toronto 211 service could get off the ground.

To get by on insufficient funding, 211 programs in Ontario have been doing the exact opposite of what they want to be doing.

“To limit costs we make it more obscure,” Morris said.

They market to vulnerable households through community agencies but that leaves in the dark many other people who could use help navigating bureaucracy to find a nursing home placement for an ailing mother, or a mental health program for a troubled child.

“It’s galling for us. We want it to be ubiquitous, we want it to be for everyone.”


• Health 15 % (60,350) i.e. pre-natal care or help with diabetes management.

• Government 13.7 % (55,100) i.e. looking to reach their elected politician or a particular government department.

• Financial assistance 12.7 % (51,100) i.e. help to pay for housing or problems with the Canada Pension Plan.

• Legal 6.8 % (27,350) i.e. help fighting an eviction or needing a legal clinic to find out about legal rights in a divorce.

• Food 6.4 % (25,750) i.e help finding the nearest food bank or how to apply for meals on wheels.

• Community services 5.5% (22,100) i.e. finding a service club or what organization runs a program.

• Education 4.5 % (18,100) i.e. help with finding training programs or how to get foreign credentials accredited.

• Hostel/shelter 4.4 % (17,700) i.e. location of a shelter in their community or a specialized place for fleeing abuse.

• Counselling 4.4 % (17,700) i.e. looking for addiction programs or mental health services for kids.

• Housing 4.3 % (17,300) i.e. looking for social housing providers or government programs to help people afford to stay in their homes.

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