Here at Sycamore House, the core of our mission is the volunteer placement that we sign up for when joining ESC. At the beginning of this year, I joined CONTACT Helpline, a local organization partnered with United Way and its service 211.
In a nutshell, 211’s primary purpose is what we call “information and referral” (I&R). If, for example, you got behind in your rent and you’re in arrears for an amount greater than you could afford, you could dial 211 and a Pennsylvania-based area code would bring you to PA 211. Certain regions may have their own specific lines, but some can get queued into the state line, so I will get calls in a variety of counties that fall under my service area, such as Wayne or Franklin. (Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have their own separate 211s though, for example). Operators like myself will do our best to find resources that could help with any given situation, be it rent assistance, affordable legal representation, food pantries, and more.
Another service we provide is an emotional helpline or “warmline,” as some folks call it. The idea is that it’s not a crisis service, but rather serves all the people who may not be in crisis just yet or have come out of it but need someone to listen to whatever could be in mind. We’re not a talkline insofar as we have any input. Part of our training is to be “client-centered”. We don’t have the solution, but we believe that the client does, in a sense. All we do is try to listen and understand, and sometimes that’s enough for someone to share his or her story and come to a better self-understanding without us trying to bumble through giving inane advice. In that sense, such a service is a gift we hope to provide, if it’s useful to the client. This line is entirely anonymous and judgment-free, and that helps people share what they need to share.
If homelessness or imminent homelessness is involved, 211 operators will transfer someone to the various queues run by housing specialists. I also happen to be one of those specialists and I will alternate my days based on the schedule I am given between 211 and housing calls. In the housing and homelessness prevention role, I perform an intake for 211 folks and try to find whatever resources are appropriate, such as emergency shelters, eviction moratorium resources, etc., as long as they are available and the client agrees to them. One thing we try to do is, if possible, provide services that the client agrees to. We require consent, for lack of a better term, and will not push anything unwanted on clients. Part of our philosophy is giving folks who have often been put into bad situations unwillingly some semblance of control and choice.
Of course, sometimes the job is not always so neat and clean. There can be an astonishing lack of resources out there, or eligibility criteria may not be met by someone who needs help. Despite being someone who merely provides information for resources that can help rather than actually running or controlling the organizations in question, it often breaks my heart when I have to tell a caller that there is nothing available. People’s reactions vary greatly; some understand and let it go, some yell at me or accuse me of purposefully trying to neglect or sabotage them. Whatever it is, I never take it personally. Many people, especially during the winter combined with a long and unforgiving pandemic, were in crisis mode and stressed beyond belief. Often, I cannot blame them for their feelings and do my best to sympathize. I even empathize at certain points since I too come from a rough background.
Ultimately, I can say that it really has been a year of service. The work here can often be difficult, but it has been far more meaningful and impactful than most other lines of work I could have or would have been doing otherwise. Instead of spinning in a desk chair doing data entry or sending standard-form emails for HR, I’ve been able to perhaps give someone a second chance, find a place for them to go when there was nowhere else, or listen to that dark story that needed telling. My thanks go to ESC and the Sycamore folks for making that possible.