2017-02-17 / Front Page

County’s social services referral line adds two-way texting

Text option allows residents to customize search with ZIP code
By Hector Gonzalez


OPEN LINES—Kelly Brown, the call center manager for 211, demonstrates how to use the information and referral hotline’s new two-way text system at the United Way of Ventura County headquarters in Camarillo on Feb. 13. 
BOBBY CURTIS/Acorn Newspapers OPEN LINES—Kelly Brown, the call center manager for 211, demonstrates how to use the information and referral hotline’s new two-way text system at the United Way of Ventura County headquarters in Camarillo on Feb. 13. BOBBY CURTIS/Acorn Newspapers Inside 211, Ventura County’s 24-hour social services center, call specialist Moises Barrera was busy Monday morning helping someone on the line find local resources for veterans.

“Yes, sir, I have a list of veterans’ services providers you can contact,” Barrera told the caller. “Do you have a pencil or something to write with?”

Last year, the busy call center on the second floor of the headquarters of United Way of Ventura County in Camarillo responded to nearly 20,000 calls to 211 from residents looking for local mental health and housing services, emergency food and medical help, and assistance for crime victims.

Another 11,000 or so residents visited the 211ventura.org website and clicked on links to 211’s database of nearly 500 agencies and providers offering more than 1,000 assistance programs, said Erik Sternad, executive director of Interface Children and Family Services in Camarillo, which helped launch the local system in 2005.


HELP IS HERE—Moises Barrera, a call specialist for 211, provides assistance at United Way of Ventura County’s headquarters on Monday. 
BOBBY CURTIS/Acorn Newspapers HELP IS HERE—Moises Barrera, a call specialist for 211, provides assistance at United Way of Ventura County’s headquarters on Monday. BOBBY CURTIS/Acorn Newspapers Now county residents have a third option for hooking into services through 211.

On Monday, Interface and county officials rolled out a two-way texting system that Sternad said could lead to new ways of getting information to county residents.

Rather than calling 211 or logging on to the website, residents can now text their ZIP codes to TXT211 (898211). They can then enter a keyword search for the specific type of help they need, Sternad said at a meeting at United Way to announce the new two-way texting system.

For example, texting the word “food” and a ZIP code will bring up a list of local pantries offering free food or low-cost meal programs.

From there, a 211 referral specialist can engage the resident by text to ask what additional services they might need, Sternad said.

With a large database of county social service programs at their fingertips, he said, referral specialists like Barrera can provide “a basketful of resources” to people seeking help.

With two-way texting, officials have an additional tool for reaching segments of residents who prefer texting to calling, especially millennials, he said. Informal surveys of other 211 systems around the state that use two-way texting showed that 87 percent of people who texted don’t call, Sternad said.

“That means that we’re getting a dwindling audience every year because people who text don’t call. We’re, in fact, becoming obsolete. So this is part of the shift that social services has to make.”

Beyond providing referrals, two-way texting could revamp how service providers share information about new programs in the community.

Instead of relying on residents contacting 211, two-way texting gives officials a way to “push” information about new programs directly to residents, even tailoring the information to specific ZIP codes, Sternad said.

“Think about how that might apply,” he said. “What if we did a collaboration with First 5 and we loaded up all the mobile phone numbers for all those young families that are being helped in one of those Neighborhood for Learning sites around the county? Now First 5 can push a text message out to their clients. They can say, ‘Hey, there’s a resource fair going on this weekend in your neighborhood.’ In fact, using the ZIP code, they can push that message out to only those people in that neighborhood.”

Customized information can be sent by text message to specific categories of residents whose mobile numbers are already listed with social service programs—foster parents, for example, Sternad said.

“This really reflects a new generation of communication,” Sternad said. “What that means is that, instead of pulling people to us, we need to reorient our system to be a push system. Instead of depending on people to find us, we need to find them.”

With no budget for marketing, 211 Ventura County relies on word of mouth to let residents know about its services. Even so, the referral system, which celebrated its 12th anniversary in Ventura County on Monday, managed to help more than 30,000 residents last year.

“We think that with the new texting option it will actually increase,” Sternad said.

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