St. Louis’ 211 hotline continues to fail homeless people, volunteers say
United Way’s 211 hotline is a taxpayer-funded service in St. Louis that, among other services, aims to provide resources to people who are homeless — but its failures often leave volunteers to pick up the slack. When those volunteers are able to receive information on shelter beds from 211 operators, they are often told that there are no 24/7 walk-in shelter beds available.
“My interest has always been and always will be the transparency for the general public: ‘Are all these beds available? How do people access them? If they're 24 hours, are they accessible 24 hours a day?’ We’ve found they're not. And how do people get to them if they don't know where they are?” said Audra Youmans, a St. Louis University student who volunteers for STL Winter Outreach. “The answer has always been to call 211. But when we call 211, no information is given.”
Nicole Warrington also volunteers for STL Winter Outreach. She is a staff scientist in cancer research at Washington University by day, and by night, she fields calls from emergency department social workers looking for resources for those who are seeking shelter.
“I'm in the process of tabulating how many I've received since the beginning of November 2022, and I'm over 100 requests for shelter — and that does not include the calls for people who ultimately found other places to stay,” she said. “There's still a desperate need for access to shelter.”
Warrington estimates that hospital workers call her rather than dialing 211 because not all 211 operators have access to a program called Get Help, which provides real-time information on available shelter beds in the city.
“[Get Help] has been helpful,” she said, while adding that there are some operators who seem untrained on the nuances of the system. “Even if a shelter shows availability, that shelter may not be appropriate for the person seeking shelter. A women's shelter, for example, even if they have a bed, you need to know that it's a women’s shelter that's not available [to men].”
Warrington and Youmans spoke on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air to discuss their efforts to help people find shelter beds in the St. Louis region.
Dr. Yusef Scoggin, St. Louis Department of Human Services director, joined the discussion to share how the system works and the city’s role in making sure that vulnerable residents have access to shelter during the winter months. He said he recognizes that there’s room for improvement to the 211 system.
“Certainly the wait times,” he said.
Indeed, a call to the 211 hotline on Wednesday that was observed by St. Louis Public Radio revealed that some operators do not have access to the information needed to find a shelter bed in the city. During the call, Youmans, who was seeking a shelter bed for a 33-year-old man leaving the emergency room, was on hold for nearly 10 minutes total.
Scoggin said that real-time data can be difficult to procure at times because half of St. Louis’ overflow shelters are walk-up shelters. “And so what is recorded in Get Help in real time sometimes is a bit challenging when someone's walking through the door of those walk-up shelters.”
On the broader issue of shelters being overfilled with clients, Scoggin said it’s a problem that needs to be dealt with region wide. He said 30% to 40% of people filling shelter beds in the city are from surrounding municipalities.
“We have individuals being transported from as far as Troy, Missouri; Jefferson County; St. Joseph, Missouri, etc.” Scoggin said. “We need to have a collective dialogue about resourcing.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to email@example.com.