Getting the 2-1-1

Help for struggling families brought closer to home

Tara Sullivan-Hames just before the showing of <i>American Winter</i> at the Pageant Theatre on Feb. 11.

Tara Sullivan-Hames just before the showing of American Winter at the Pageant Theatre on Feb. 11.

photo by tom gascoyne

Tuesday, Feb. 11, was National 2-1-1 Day, and to bring local attention to this day and what it means, a documentary film called American Winter was shown at the Pageant Theatre.

The film documents the struggles of middle-class families in Portland, Ore., during the winter of 2011-12 as they fall behind in rent, mortgage payments, and utility and medical bills. The film includes people accessing 2-1-1, an information and referral telephone service that has been national for the past few years.

A local version of the service—Butte 2-1-1—was established in Butte County in October to help connect those in need to local community resources and social services. Tara Sullivan-Hames, director of Butte 2-1-1, coordinated the effort with the help of the Greater Chico Homeless Task Force and other agencies that provide social assistance to Butte County families.

“The film has a connection to 2-1-1 because the filmmakers actually sat in at the 2-1-1 call center in Portland, Ore.,” Sullivan-Hames explained before the showing of the film. “They got to listen to 2-1-1 calls that are normally confidential. But they got permission from callers and families to follow them for the winter, and to be able to tell their stories as they were struggling to survive the recession.

“That connection between 2-1-1 and families in need highlights the economic-hardship realities of American middle- and lower-middle-class families struggling to make ends meet. We recognized that is a reality for families in our county as well.”

The HBO film, directed by Joe Gantz, profiles eight families going through rough times that range from water- and electric-service cutoffs to their homes for lack of payment, to facing eviction and foreclosure for falling behind in rent and mortgage. Medical bills, chronic unemployment and being forced to work jobs that pay minimum wage add up to troubled times for the families who are followed closely by the filmmakers.

American Winter also documents the families turning to Portland’s 2-1-1 services and gaining help to pay off bills, find shelter or get food stamps. In each case, the parents are unnerved and embarrassed that they’ve stumbled upon such hard times, letting down their children and, in some cases, their own parents. “The American dream has turned into the American nightmare,” one woman laments.

Many of the social-service workers quoted in the film blame an American economy that, in their words, allows the rich to grow richer while the middle class descends into poverty.

Noting the political thread of the film, Sullivan-Hames stressed after the showing that 2-1-1 policy is politically neutral.

“No matter what national or state or local economic or public policies are in place, 2-1-1 is here to help people who need support get connected to the community resources that offer help and assistance,” she said.

The service itself is “nonjudgmental of the entire situation,” Sullivan-Hames said. “If there is a person calling for help, and there is a program in the community that offers that help, 2-1-1 will try to make that connection.”

She said the key to the success of the service is simply getting people to know it exists.

“We need to let people know that there is a starting point for getting help—a simple, easy-to-remember number that they can call to get connected to community resources and support programs,” Sullivan-Hames said. “They can call 2-1-1 and we can help them navigate the possible resources. I think that gives a sense of hope when people are hurting—that there is someone who will answer their call 24/7 and try to explain options and point them toward available resources.”

She said the Butte 2-1-1 database has more than 800 low-cost or no-cost programs available in Butte County, ranging from job-training programs to support groups and even low-cost recreation programs for families.

“Many calls to Butte 2-1-1 are from people experiencing some type of hardship, similar to the families portrayed in the film,” Sullivan-Hames said. “The calls are for utility bill payment help, low-cost housing, food or legal assistance.”

She said the callers are “pre-screened” to determine whether they are eligible for a state nutrition-assistance program called CalFresh.

“We can get them connected to the CalFresh application and enrollment process,” she said. “Having additional dollars to buy food each month can often be the safety net that allows families to make ends meet in an already stretched budget.”