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Ontario 211 helpline goes province-wide, over 4 million served

Feb 22, 2012
News source:

It's official. Ontario 211, the phone line that has helped well over 4 million callers find help in the social and human services sectors since it launched a decade ago, is now province-wide. And Ontario is the first province in Canada to be able to make that claim.

Now every resident of Ontario can pick up the phone, dial the easy-to-remember 2-1-1 number, and with the help of the real live person who answers, find their way to the services and programs that specifically meet their needs. In 2011, Ontario 211 received nearly 575,000 calls most often related to health issues, income and financial assistance, housing, food and meals, and legal and public safety. Visits to its website,, increased 40 per cent. And the service won the Highest Customer Satisfaction Award from SQM, which benchmarks more than 450 call centres in North America.

"Ontario 211's expansion across the province will give all Ontarians instant telephone access to local social services information. Whether it is a family in crisis, a young person just starting out, a new Canadian family or a parent searching for local children's services, the 211 service will make it easier and quicker to find the right services and supports," said Bas Balkissoon, Parliamentary Assistant to Minister of Community and Social Services John Milloy.

Supported by the Province of Ontario, individual municipalities, United Ways, the Ontario Trillium Foundation, and Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Ontario 211 Services Corporation is a non-profit designed to create the greatest impact with the dollars it receives.

"We're about efficiency, making sure every dollar from every source goes its furthest, serving Ontarians in the most effective way," says Bill Morris, Executive Director. "The use of cutting edge technology helps to achieve this. In addition, service record data and referral data gleaned from such technologies is helping to map needs and gaps in human services across the province."

When a caller dials 211, an Information and Referral Specialist listens to the person's plight and probes further until he or she fully understands the situation. Then, applying years of social services experience and specialized information and referral training, the I&R Specialist navigates through 211's vast database and provides contact and background information of the services and programs most likely to help the caller.

For Sandra, calling 211 changed her life. At 53, Sandra had endured years of struggle. A long-time sufferer of fibromyalgia, and the single mother of an autistic boy who in 2009, had been molested by a trusted, family friend, she knew that guilt and grief were consuming her - and that chronic pain and financial hardship were gnawing away at what was leftover. And so, like many people besieged by difficulties, she tried to reach out. She made countless calls, she searched the Internet, she asked friends and strangers for advice, but misinformation, lack of information or too much information defeated her. Instead of finding help, one afternoon in the middle of January, she found herself unable to get out of bed.

"I had my phone with me," she recalls. "And I remember thinking, this will be my last call. " She dialed 2-1-1.

A real person answered. Ekaterina, a 23-year-old Information and Referral Specialist, is fluent in English, French and Russian. She spends her days at the call-centre, navigating her way through their vast database, talking to folks from all walks of life, seeking all manner of help. The nature of requests varies daily and often changes with the time of the month or the time of year. Tax-time, Christmas holidays, the dreary months of winter, and so on each create a unique set of challenges. And while some callers are simply looking for a number, others are looking for a way out of their despair.

Ekaterina knew she had to get as much information as possible from Sandra in order to assist her properly. She asked questions, listened intently and responded compassionately. An hour-long conversation later, and Ekaterina was able to provide contact information for two agencies tailored to Sandra and her son's needs.

"By encouraging people to let it all out, it helps them relieve some stress and gives me a better idea of what we were dealing with," Ekaterina explains. "Getting them to share their story helps them and it helps me."

For Sandra, the sourcing of appropriate numbers was in itself a great relief, but it was the human connection that had such an impact.

"She really listened to what I had to say, what I needed, how I felt. She told me she knew of others who had similar problems. Most importantly, she told me to be strong, that I was on the right path, that I could get through this."

Today, Sandra is in the process of working with Child Advocacy and CAMH, the agencies the 211 I&R Specialist recommended. Although she and her son haven't yet become fully immersed in their programs, just knowing things are in place fills her with optimism. Once an established singer and songwriter, Sandra's illness, her son's special needs, and the terrible thing that happened to him, have taken a toll on her career. But no longer her dreams. She is currently working from home, rediscovering her music.

Asked if she would recommend 211, she quickly answers yes.

211 helps people find the right community and social services and is available 24/7, 365 days a year. 211 can provide information in over 150 languages. The website is available to everyone with Internet access.

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