Hundreds of thousands of Los Angeles County’s most vulnerable residents know they can get help by calling 211. But depending on how the County Board of Supervisors vote on Aug. 2, the people who answer those calls – primarily women and people of color – are at risk on Jan. 1 of being replaced by computers.
Health and social service providers fear the change will destroy the effectiveness of a system that’s been in place for 40 years if the Board agrees to take the contract for 2-1-1 services away from the nonprofit that’s been doing the work for 40 years and giving it to a big corporation with no such experience that proposes automating it.
In June alone 2-1-1 responders in Los Angeles County received more than 42,000 requests for help from across the county – 307,564 in 2022 as of mid-July. Issues ranged from emergency shelter needs to counseling, food assistance, and COVID-19 services, among many others.
Although most calls were conducted in English (87%), 11% were in Spanish, with thousands more in languages as varied as Mandarin, Armenian, or Tagalog.
The 2-1-1 lines are currently staffed by a team of 59 “community resource advisors” (CRAs) who are familiar with the network of mostly nongovernmental health, human and social services providers in the county.
“Our CRAs regularly handle 600-700 contacts per month and a total of 7,500-8,500 calls per year,” said Alana Hitchcock of 211LA, the nonprofit organization that runs the call centers, in an interview with Ethnic Media Services.
“It’s a very intensive training. Trauma informed, culturally informed, handling crisis calls, suicide, de-escalation, empathy, validation, assessments for stated and unstated needs,” Hitchcock said, adding, “Often people don’t know what to ask for, what’s available.”
According to Hitchcock, 211LA maintains a database of “approximately 50,000 health and social services available to Los Angeles County residents for free or low cost.” There is also a website, 211la.org available in more than 130 languages with filters to help people locate the services they need.
As of July 15, Hitchcock said, the site had 747,950 users and more than 1.17 million pageviews this year – not counting the “FoodFinder” tool that generally has several thousand users per month.
“Adding together the people we’ve directly assisted and the website, we’re already well over 1 million served this year,” Hitchcock said, “far beyond what the county pays for.”
211LA has been operating the program as an independent nonprofit since 1981 and currently gets $7.6 million annually from the county, good for 60% of its budget.
Other funding comes from contracts with the State of California, LAHSA (Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority), SoCal Gas, Southern California Edison, the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), and foundation grants, including from the National Institutes of Health.
In a 2017 audit, the county found it had saved $11.9 million over the previous five years by not allowing for adjustments to 211LA’s 2005 contract to cover increased demand or CPI (consumer price index) increases.
As a result, it found, 211LA has been understaffed and callers have faced longer wait times, which can have a domino effect, Hitchcock explained, as CRAs need to de-escalate frustrated callers who may try to get help for more issues on that one call.
But under a proposed 10-year contract before the County Board of Supervisors, 211LA will be replaced by the New York accounting and consulting giant Deloitte.
Deloitte would use artificial intelligence programs and “chat bots” to further automate the work 211LA does, receiving a base pay of $114 million over the life of the contract, without some of the mandates 211LA has, including living wage requirements for staff.
Fully funding 211 services as they are now, the organization estimates, would run $16 million per year.
Although there are 211-type services run by local jurisdictions throughout California, across the country and in Canada, Deloitte, long one of the biggest accounting firms in the country, has no experience in 211 work.
And a fully automated system such as Deloitte is advocating, Hitchcock said, may not work well for people who have language barriers, don’t have tech literacy, and are in crisis to begin with.
“They’ve lost sight of the human service quality,” she said. “We really feel it would be a disaster for the community.”
Despite cost overruns and performance issues going back decades, California agreed to new contracts with Deloitte for its overwhelmed Employment Development Department (EDD) call center early in the pandemic when millions were pushed out of work.
But EDD data found that starting in late September of 2020, only 5.5 million of almost 80 million calls directed to it were answered. By January 2021, fewer than 5% of those calls were being answered. California declined to renew the Deloitte contract in February 2021.
“Deloitte’s poor track record of public service response and their plan to heavily rely on chat bots to address urgent social needs of L.A. County callers is moving counter to every one of the leading 2-1-1s across the country,” said Erik Sternad, executive director of 211 Ventura.
“These 2-1-1s like in Ventura County are moving toward greater service integration, more personal human engagement to address the complex situations that 2-1-1- callers are in.”
Gloria Cruz of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles pointed to Deloitte’s history of working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “Our organization is alarmed,” she said, adding that 211LA “has been a trusted partner and a critical agency getting important information to immigrant Angelenos.”
Advocates for Los Angeles’ 2-1-1 call system remaining under current management are urging people to contact their county supervisor to oppose adoption of the proposed contract.
*This story has been updated to show the date for the upcoming vote scheduled for Aug. 2 on the proposed contract.