Sarasota County Commission cuts funding for social service hotline
Black phone on a white background with a pink-X. Photo by Cole Kinsley.

Sarasota County Commission cuts funding for social service hotline

Sarasota County’s 24-hour social service helpline, 211, was scheduled to shut down April 1 after the Sarasota County Commission cut funding for a multitude of social service programs. The 211 line provides callers with referrals to community resources for non-emergency crises, such as food pantries, subsidized housing and general legal aid. Its removal would have impacted residents’ access to these services.

But on March 28, a local philanthropist stepped forward to save the program. “To basically say ‘No, we’re not going to get the money after accounting has done it for 25 years’ it’s just plain selfish,” Hugh Culverhouse Jr. told WTSP Channel 10 News.

Culverhouse, who is an attorney and a developer, pledged $218,000 to keep the program going for a couple years. “Common sense may return and when it does, funding something vital for poor people in Sarasota should occur,” he stated in the March 28 news broadcast. “We welcome all people to Sarasota not just people with money, and as soon as the commission understands you serve everybody, the better off Sarasota County will be.”

211 Contact Centers are national information and referral helplines designated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to centralize and simplify Americans’ access to community resources 24/7 on a free and confidential basis. The lines are accessible through call, text, email or web chat. They  route users to professionally trained specialists in the local area who can  assist with paying bills, finding food or access to health aid, directing people to local resources they might not know are available. According to the FCC, 211 is intended to help redirect “the elderly, the disabled, those who do not speak English, those with a personal crisis, those with limited reading skills, those who are new to their communities,” as well as veterans and others in need.

211 began in 1985 as a single call center in Jacksonville and is now a network of more than 200 agencies nationwide, available to 94.6 percent of the U.S. population. 211 is made possible by a collaboration between county or regionally based governing entities and local social services agencies, such as United Way, Goodwill, Community Action Partnerships and crisis centers. Sarasota will soon be excluded due to the lack of financial support from the Sarasota County Commission.

According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the withdrawal of public money was the result of a Sept. 12 Sarasota County Commission meeting where commissioners cut all aid to many non-profit organizations in the county, including the hotline. 211 Suncoast previously received a $109,000 commitment from the Commission, about 30 percent of their annual budget. 

In a letter to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and commissioners, United Way Suncoast CEO Jessica Muroff wrote, “United Way Suncoast has been paying the full cost to keep the services active while we worked through potential solutions. As we have been unable to identify an alternative funding source, all United Way Suncoast’s funding for 211 will be exhausted by March 31, 2024.” 

The decision came amidst claims from some commissioners that the county was spending too much money on social services that they deem to be ineffectual or unnecessary. Commissioner  Mike Moran said a radical overhaul was needed to end “Sarasota Socialism.” The line averages 1.5 callers per hour which costs the county roughly  $700 a day. 

Commissioner Mark Smith added a reconsideration of 211 funding to the agenda for the board’s March 19 meeting, but it was voted down again. 

Some may assume access to a smart device automatically connects people to the services they need. The Commission has suggested residents use the municipal info line and app, 311Connect, as an alternative—but it’s not a referral line nor does it cover the same breadth of services. 

According to Your Sun, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis issued a statement March 5 saying the county’s 311 service is only for help with county-operated resources. “This was true before the discontinuation of 211 services and remains the case afterward,” Lewis said.

The Sarasota County Commission’s own citizen-led advisory boards, Behavioral Health Advisory Council and Human Services Advisory Council, disagreed with the decision to cut funds. According to the Herald Tribune, “United Way Suncoast’s 211 was the third highest-rated program by Human Services Advisory Council (HSAC), with a total score of 35.8 for impact on the three priorities of food, safety and shelter. It was not funded.”

“This was the first year that 211 was considered as part of the HSAC funding process,” Muroff explained. “Although 211 received one of the highest overall application scores from HSAC, the breadth and variety of services it encompasses do not neatly align with the new evaluation criteria approved by the Commission, which heavily weighs performance in a single category.” 

Opponents of the decision say the Suncoast 211 service is needed now more than ever—a time of “historic need” in Sarasota as it continues to recover from the pandemic, faces a housing crisis, hurricanes, inflation and soaring electric bills during summer heat waves. 

Although many people do have access to phones and computers, tech literacy is poor among many demographics and reliable access to Wi-Fi and data isn’t guaranteed for all. Phone calls are simply more accessible and offer immediate resolutions. For those without peer support, specialists do more than just patch people through—they can also provide much needed human connection.

“It’s not just a phone number,” President and CEO of 211 San Diego John Ohanian stated on the National Association of Counties website. “We’re assessing their risk and vulnerability—whether it’s food insecurity or housing and any of these things that basically allow people to live life.”

211 specialist LaKeta, featured on the United Way of Greater Atlanta website, explained, “I try to give words and hope for encouragement, and that goes a long way. Giving them a little hope in there, letting them know that it’s OK and will all work out, that has brought me a long way. Why not try to pass it on to someone else?” LaKeta applied to work at the service after it helped her through a crisis.  

People trained for these vulnerable conversations can sometimes clarify nuances that aren’t always obvious from a screen, and phone calls create stronger connections than text alone

Supporters of 211 have claimed that the service did not cost the county an unreasonable amount of money for a community resource that isn’t broken. Carrie Sediman stated  in a Sarasota Herald-Tribune opinion piece, “By Sarasota standards, $109,000 is not a huge sum. [By the end of the fiscal year], hopefully [commissioners will] change their attitudes toward spending taxpayer money on a cost-effective and crucial service that protects our most vulnerable neighbors.”

Without support the database will be defunct at the end of March. “We’ll continue to meet with Sarasota County officials and advocate for 211,” Muroff said in the letter. “It is one of the single most important tools we have when it comes to delivering needed social services to the community.”

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