Richard LaPratt

Richard LaPratt, Executive Director, 211 Metro Chicago

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The below blog post is an opinion piece written by 211 Metro Chicago Executive Director Richard LaPratt. It was also edited for length and published as a letter to the editor in the Chicago Sun-Times, which you can read here: “Remember to dial 211 for free health and social services help.”

When 211 Metro Chicago launched in January, we already knew the need for this free health and social service helpline was significant. The pandemic had proven that awareness of and access to social services was extremely limited in Cook County, with residents unsure where to turn as they struggled to find health care resources, support with household bills, or food to feed their families. Last year, 911 and 311 received a combined total of more than 6.1 million calls in the city of Chicago (1 million more than there are residents in the entire county) and many of them were social service requests that could have been met by 211 if it had been available at the time.

United Way of Metro Chicago had been working to launch a 211 helpline for the region for more than a decade. Now, eight months into operating it and serving as Executive Director, I see the benefit 211 is having and understand now more than ever the unique nature of the needs facing Chicagoans and Cook County residents. Unfortunately, systemic issues, combined with our social, political, and economic history, have exacerbated the challenges we face today such as the ongoing impacts of inflation and community violence.

My career has been focused on developing and running 211 helplines in some of our nation’s highest-need regions—in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina in 2005, in Orlando during Tropical Storm Fay in 2008, along the Louisiana coast in 2010 during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and in Southwest Pennsylvania in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. The needs in these regions were clear and even felt firsthand, as I was forced out of my home by hurricanes alongside the neighbors I was working so hard to serve. But it’s different in Chicago.

The requests our local Resource Navigators assist with bear this out, as all types of people from different neighborhoods and suburban communities call in for help with a wide variety of issues. As the first point of contact for people experiencing vulnerable situations and diverse needs, they see that while some communities are flush with resources, others exist in deserts so vast their residents may have to go many miles to meet their most basic needs such as food or health care. These basic-need voids have real consequences. For example, when you travel from the North Side to the South Side of Chicago, life expectancy drops 10 years. That is unacceptable.

We are working to identify and quantify the greatest needs in each unique community and connect those needs with the nonprofit and civic partners that can provide solutions. In this first year, we are seeing significant asks for housing and food security, but the issues that follow run the gamut of utility payment assistance, mental health and substance use treatment, and employment.

Beyond meeting basic needs is the tangible work of building stronger communities—but we can do it only with the generous support from and collaboration with civic, business, nonprofit, and philanthropic organizations across the region. The foundation is already laid with the unique partnership between United Way of Metro Chicago, the City of Chicago, and Cook County, which ensures 211 has stable funding and buy-in from our region’s most important decision-makers. But we also need to work with 911, 311, and the 988 mental health crisis line to create a system that is fully equipped to support Cook County residents before, during, and after a crisis.

And while we have fielded more than 70,000 contacts since January, we still need to get the word out so that every Cook County resident in need knows there is help available. Our goal is for every resident to know they can call 211 from their cell phone or landline, text us at 898211, or visit 211MetroChicago.org to chat with a Resource Navigator if they are facing housing insecurity or hunger; need assistance with their immigration, disability or veteran status; cannot find childcare, mental health care or a job; or are unable to afford a winter coat.

As we head into the last few months of 2023 and approach our first full year of operation, I am proud of the impact that 211 Metro Chicago has made on our region and the ways we have integrated this service into the fabric of our community. But there is more to be done to create a fully collaborative web of partners across Chicago and Cook County that share data, resources, and expertise to solve our communities’ greatest challenges and address their root causes.

Learn more and connect with 211 Metro Chicago.