It is a dubious distinction; nearly 20 percent of all homeless public-school children in Florida reside in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties. In an area with high rents and lower-paying jobs, a significant portion of the population — who are employed — are just one emergency away from being homeless themselves.
Authorities have identified over 13,000 homeless children, but that number may be twice that since families often hide their situation or don’t think of themselves as homeless. However, Central Florida has thousands of people doubling up in the homes of family members, living out of cars, camping in the woods or scraping up the $30 for a night at a cheap motel.
The homelessness problem is a symptom of a larger issue, and solutions and stopgaps are needed to prevent difficult situations from escalating. Through Heart of Florida United Way’s 2-1-1 Information and Assistance Helpline, people can get real help.
What is 2-1-1?
Most people know to call 9-1-1 in the case of a dangerous emergency, such as a fire or robbery. However, few realize that another resource — 2-1-1 — is available to them for other emergencies, like utility assistance, emergency housing, nutrition programs, educational opportunities and more.
2-1-1, the region’s largest crisis support and helpline, is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by trained specialists. Each specialist undergoes 80 hours of training before being able to handle incoming requests, and they also have continued training throughout their term of employment. People in need of help can contact 2-1-1 in a variety of ways:
- Dial 2-1-1 on your phone
- Text your zipcode to 898-211
- Visit www.hfuw.org/2-1-1 to live chat
- Email firstname.lastname@example.org
By contacting 2-1-1, you will get connected to a multilingual specialist in your area that can connect you to critical services. It is a free and confidential service, whether you need are experiencing a mental health crisis, are in need of financial assistance or are looking for affordable childcare.
2-1-1 and the Community
Month after month, the 2-1-1 Information and Assistance Helpline receives thousands of calls texts, emails and messages from people in the tri-county area in need. The single most common request is for housing assistance, followed by the need for utility bill aid to keep the power or water on. Nearly half of the people reaching out 2-1-1 are contacting the helpline for the first time, showing just how pervasive this problem is.
2-1-1 provides an essential safety net for residents in Central Florida. By focusing on prevention — such as helping with utility bills so callers can stay in their homes — 2-1-1 tries to keep larger issues, like homelessness, from ever happening.
“United Way’s 2-1-1 Information and Assistance Helpline is a one-stop resource for obtaining information and referrals to thousands of state and local human and health service programs,” said Robert H. (Bon) Brown, president and CEO of United Way. “Because of our specialists, we are able to address the root causes of issues before they become more serious.”
2-1-1 Helps a Returning Veteran
One family was able to keep their home thanks to contacting 2-1-1. Angel Medina was in the army for three years working as a fuel specialist. Upon his return from the military, he struggled to find work and reintegrate into civilian life. His wife, Diana, had also recently lost her job, and they struggled to keep up with their bills, especially because they had a young son to care for. They realized they were just one missed payment away from losing their house and becoming homeless.
Diana heard of 2-1-1 from a friend, so she called the helpline. She was quickly connected to support services, which helped them identify programs they qualified for, such as food stamps, to free up more money in their budget for their bills. Local service organizations covered the cost of the mortgage payment until the Medinas got on their feet; they both underwent job training and budgeting and financial management courses, so they could be better prepared in the future for financial emergencies.
They are both now employed full-time and are all caught up on their bills. Because of the intervention of 2-1-1, they were able to get through a rough patch and get their family back on track. With new jobs and skills, they can keep their home and build a better life for their son.
If you or someone you know needs help, 2-1-1 can be accessed any time of the day by phone, chat, text or email.
Ashley Blasewitz is the Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Heart of Florida United Way