Bright Idea: Using the United Way’s 211 Network to Help Runaway Youth

Photograph of pay telephones.

Chris Molinelli calls it “a happy accident.” In September, his Middletown, NY, youth shelter, A Friend’s House, received a 3 a.m. call from a young man who needed emergency housing. “He met all our criteria, but we couldn’t get him transportation,” Molinelli says.

Frustrated by that missed opportunity, Molinelli knew there had to be a way to help youth in similar situations. One of his partner organizations helped run a local after-hours hotline for homeless adults and families. Clients only had to dial 211 to access services. Molinelli set out to bring A Friend’s House under the 211 umbrella as a primary resource for homeless youth, and he achieved that goal on April 1.

By following Molinelli's lead and including your program in a local 211 network, you can connect your organization to other social services and make it easier for youth to contact you.

The 411 on 211

211 was founded by the Federal Communications Commission in 2000, and now nearly 90 percent of the United States has a 211 service, managed by the United Way. Trained screeners answer every call and can connect callers to everything from unemployment services to soup kitchens, child care to senior resources. Calls are free, confidential and anonymous, and most 211 lines are open 24 hours a day.

Linda Daily, who directs 211 and disaster services for United Way Worldwide says that each local 211 has comprehensive databases of health and human services organizations in its geographic service areas. Listed services include runaway and homeless youth shelters, domestic abuse facilities, and maternity group homes.

“Our regional offices do their best to keep up to date with new service providers,” Daily says, but to make sure your organization is included in the local directory, call 211 or go to and enter your zip code. You’ll be connected to your local branch, where staff can begin the process of adding you.

Streamlined Intake

“Used to be, when a youth wanted to get in touch with A Friend’s House, they’d call our shelter,” Molinelli says. “But now they can call 211 and begin the intake process. The call is free from any phone, and they can call after hours, too.”

By the time youth make it to A Friend’s House, Molinelli and his colleagues already have a lot of the essential information they typically only get through intake. “We of course have our own screening and intake process,” Molinelli says, “but the 211 operator is trained to ask things like, ‘Are you safe?’ ‘Are you pregnant?’ ‘Have you tried any other services?’”

Additionally, 211 is a safe, relatively anonymous number for those youth who are in abusive relationships. They are also equipped to reconnect with dropped calls in case a youth has to hang up or loses the connection.

Spreading the Word

Now that their relationship with 211 is established, Molinelli and his colleagues are at work creating flyers to advertise the service.

“Our outreach workers will go out and give them to homeless school liaisons and grocery stores,” he says. “We’ll be postering everywhere we know homeless youth go. The goal is to put them up in schools, convenient stores—anywhere a youth might run to.”

More Articles About 211

This post on the National Alliance to End Homelessness blog talks about communities where calling 211 is the first step for anyone experiencing homelessness.

This article shows the relationship between A Friend’s House and 211 in action.

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