Information and Referral: Connecting Services to People

Today, November 16, marks the celebration known as National Information and Referral (I&R) Day. It is an opportunity for us to acknowledge and appreciate the work done daily by thousands of professionals and volunteers who link services to people through information and referral programs.

How many people seek information?

It is estimated by the I&R specialists’ national association, the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems (AIRS), that in the past year alone, 24 million calls were answered, while texts to I&R specialists are increasing 300% each year. There were another 40 million website visits to the online resource databases of I&R and public websites.

These databases are the key to services, containing vital information on community, health and government programs and are kept current by trained Resource specialists who serve as community curators and navigators. The specialists also serve as advocates on behalf of those who need additional support. It is important to note that the services are free, convenient and confidential.

According to AIRS, the highest ranked need registered in contacts with I&R specialists is housing. Sometimes the call is from a new person arriving in a community in search of housing. It can also be a contact made during times of disaster when housing can be impacted. Or, it can be a case of access to safe and appropriate housing. For example, Marie, a 71-year-old widow from Indiana, needed help to heat her house because she was poor but did not qualify for federal energy assistance. The I&R specialist who answered her call connected her to a state winter assistance fund which kept her gas connected.

How does it work?

The I&R profession operates through 2-1-1 programs, crisis centers, Area Agencies on Aging, Aging and Disability Resource Centers, and Military Family Support Centers, and provide specialized and comprehensive I&R services every day. These programs can be found in libraries, independent community non-profits, faith-based organizations, and government agencies at every level.

The 2-1-1 access to human services system helps people connect to the I&R services in their communities. The most recent data shows that 2-1-1 serves more than 92 percent of the US population in all 50 states as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. In 2016, almost 13 million calls were handled by 2-1-1.

What else does I&R do?

I&R specialists proudly serve veterans who may come on tough times such as Jim, age 66, who called 2-1-1 for help with food after not eating for five days, living in a motel and having his car stolen. 2-1-1 connected him with a community center who agreed not only to deliver him food but also to help him access other services in the center.

I&R specialists also help with issues like suicide prevention, sexual assault resources, and guiding victims of domestic violence to key resources such as safe havens.

Another compelling value of I&R comes during times of disaster which our nation has endured on too many occasions in 2017. The ability of these specialists to aid individuals and families simply by providing information in a time of dire need makes an enormous difference.

One recent disaster example occurred during Hurricane Harvey in Texas. From August 22-30, 2017, the 2-1-1 Texas network responded to almost 80,000 calls. Before landfall, calls were about evacuation and transportation options; after landfall, there were high-water rescue calls. The 2-1-1 specialist played the key human role of offering a calming voice and further assistance through 9-1-1.

Further, we observe National I&R Day during National Preparedness Month; I&R and 2-1-1 in some communities are now focused on providing disaster preparedness educational programs to address a growing need, especially among older adults.

What challenges does I&R face?

The top concern I&R specialists have is funding. According to the National Association of States United for Aging and Disabilities (NASUAD), the Older Americans Act, which is a key federal funder of I&R, has endured a 64 percent reduction in funding since 1980 while the population of older adults has grown by 86 percent—and older adults are only one group served by I&R. Other challenges include limited community resources, major changes to the long-term services and supports network, and maintaining staffing.

We celebrate I&R Day on the eve of the holiday season—a time when human challenges for help and assistance can grow. We must recognize the value and relevance of I&R in America. It can and does make a difference in the lives of those who I&R specialists and volunteers support each day.

Today, call 2-1-1 or a local I&R office just to say thanks for the work they do every day. They may be unsung heroes but they don’t have to be.

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