If you call 2–1–1 in over 90% of counties in the USA, you’re connected to a directory assistance representative that can refer you to the health and social services that meet your needs. If you call 2–1–1 in New York City, you’re connected to our 3-1-1 system — which is provides basic information about government and government-funded services, but doesn’t offer information about the vast majority of nonprofit services available in the city.

211 systems are essential infrastructure for any coherent safety net. Indeed, without them we don’t even know what the social safety net looks like! That’s why almost every major city in the US has one — but not NYC. Instead, people struggle to find basic information about where they can access basic nonprofit programs that provide housing, employment, food, children’s services, domestic violence counseling, and so much more.

Prosperous and powerful New Yorkers tend to be unaware that the city lacks a 211 system because they rarely, if ever, use nonprofit social services. But when disaster strikes — like COVID or Superstorm Sandy — many people who never before needed access to nonprofit services suddenly do. By providing a canonical sources of information about services for survivors, 211 systems serve tend to become de facto coordination centers during disasters, often convening and facilitating collaboration between government agencies, nonprofits and community groups.

In the absence of a such a system, groups of people make their own solutions. After Superstorm Sandy, New Jersey and Long Island residents could easily find out about social services available to them by calling 2–1–1, visiting their region’s 2–1–1 website or reading through official resource guides created by their 2–1–1. In New York City, since no local entity took responsibility for organizing all the nonprofit service information, there was a massive coordination crisis. Things got so bad that an unnamed FEMA leader created a 211-style services directory , even though it was so far outside their traditional responsibilities that they had to pretend that other organizations had created it. 

During the COVID crisis, hundreds of mutual aid groups sprung up all over New York City to help residents get food, access services and more. Mutual Aid NYC, a city-wide network, created their own 2–1–1 style system with a phone hotline and resource directory using Open Referral standards. 

It’s insane that volunteers in NYC are building 2–1–1 system from scratch during major disasters. Our city’s nonprofit and government community should set up a modern, persistent 2–1–1 system that New Yorkers can count on to get information about accessible services. Our lack of one is a hindrance to every nonprofit and government service provider, and an embarrassment to every politician who claims to care about New Yorkers in need. If they really cared, wouldn’t they make sure it was possible for every New Yorker to actually find the services they’re entitled to receive?

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