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Could COVID-19 Funding Restore AZ's 2-1-1 Service?

The addition of live operators to handle COVID-19 calls on the 211 Arizona help line might mean the service could be fully restored when the crisis is over. (AtstockProductions/Adobe Stock)
The addition of live operators to handle COVID-19 calls on the 211 Arizona help line might mean the service could be fully restored when the crisis is over. (AtstockProductions/Adobe Stock)
April 24, 2020

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- There's some cautious optimism that a new COVID-19 referral service could restore the '211 Arizona' help line to full operation again.

After losing most of its funding in 2008, the social services hotline has been only a digital phone tree with no live operators. And an anti-abortion group has blocked new funding, demanding that tax money not be used for abortion referrals.

But Kristen Merrifield, CEO of the Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits, points out the state recently added people to the help line for new coronavirus referrals, which she says is a good start.

"A lot of times people really need multiple services," says Merrifield. "They may be homeless, but they're experiencing mental health issues. They may have domestic violence issues. And so, the ability to talk to a live person and help them navigate through different levels of referrals and support that they need is critically important."

Numerous attempts to restore the '211 Arizona' funding have come before the State Legislature, but Merrifield says the Center for Arizona Policy killed those bills. The conservative lobby group continues to demand a ban on abortion referrals.

The state recently allocated two million dollars to establish a COVID-19 hotline with live operators through '211 Arizona.' Merrifield says many of her group's 1,000 members hope when the crisis clears, the operators will be retained for all types of referrals.

"Right now, they've propped it up for the purpose of COVID response," says Merrifield. "But it shines a light on the fact of how important a system like this is. If it's been operating at full capacity, it would just be able to continue to do what it was created to do."

Merrifield says the outcome of the November elections could bring major changes to '211 Arizona' if the GOP's ironclad grip on the legislative majority is loosened.

"You'll still see significant opposition from the one organization that's been driving that. With a changed legislative landscape, maybe? But for right now, it's all or nothing," says Merrifield.

'211 Arizona' is a statewide service operated by the nonprofit Crisis Response Network. It gives callers information on resources such as shelters, food banks, health care, employment and finances. People can dial 211 or look online at '211arizona.org.'

Mark Richardson, Public News Service - AZ