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At Call Center, Desperation On Line 1

Rick Green

March 06, 2009

The phones keep ringing, day and night, each call another small drama in the misery unfolding quietly around us.

For 20 years John Crawford has answered the phone calls at the United Way's 2-1-1 Infoline, the three numbers you dial when there isn't anywhere else to turn.

The 2-1-1 line offers a lot of help to thousands of people, but these days it's also a snapshot of who is suffering in Connecticut. And the folks who answer the phones are beginning to wonder how much more they can handle.

The poor and the despondent have always called, but now it is working people, increasingly the middle class, whose lives have been upended by the recession. It started last summer with a surge of inquiries from people worried about paying the winter heating bills.

One recent call, from a man who had never asked for help before, was typical.

"I am humbled," a voice told Crawford, a middle-aged, burly man with a white beard, soft eyes and an encyclopedic mind filled with the essentials that many of us blithely ignore when the food pantry opens, where the shelters are, how to try to put off an eviction, what you need to earn to be eligible for food stamps.

The man on the phone says he once earned six figures, but now he is desperate for food, a job, a place he can afford to live. No longer does he think that getting out of poverty means merely pulling up your bootstraps.

It's the sort of appeal that Crawford and the dozens of other 2-1-1 specialists are getting more frequently. Cutting through a caller's pride can be the hardest part.

"Two words sum up the past few months 'never thought. I never thought. We never thought we would be asking for help,'" Crawford explains. "I do my best. I tell them these days everyone is subsidized in one way or another. If it is good enough for G.M., it is good enough for you."

Crawford's job is to gently guide a caller through the options, including assessing whether there might be other, more serious, problems. He does this 75 or 100 times a day. Lately, the 2-1-1 specialists are spending longer on the calls, unraveling a sticky web of joblessness, hunger and foreclosure.

"There is a shock when I tell them this is all there is," Crawford says when he takes a break from the phones in the Infoline offices, which overlook I-91 in Rocky Hill. The program is funded by the state and the United Way. "Compassion fatigue is very real."

"'How can I live?' they say. 'What about the safety net?'"

The number of requests from people who can't pay for their heat or utilities is up dramatically compared with last year. So are calls from people with little or no food.

United Way President Rick Porth and Vice President Tanya Barrett led me around the call center, where the phones light up 200,000 times a year and the line never shuts down. Monday mornings, not surprisingly, are busiest.

"Is he feeling suicidal?" I hear a specialist say into her phone as we go by. "Where does he live?"

There are specialists who handle life-threatening situations, calls from parents and inquiries about HUSKY insurance and Birth-to-Three programs. In the 2-1-1 library, where they build Infoline's extensive database, Carol Davis tells me how more people are calling with specific questions about how the stimulus package the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will affect things like health insurance and food stamps.

"These are people who have never had to call for help. They are embarrassed," Barrett explains as we walk on, past the specialists talking calmly into telephone headsets. "It's food, utility bills and mortgage foreclosures. Basic needs."

Porth tells me they can't help but think about "how to keep the safety net together. Are there enough nonprofits and government programs out there to meet this need? It's a concern."

I ask Crawford whether this recession truly is different from other rough times that he has seen in the past two decades on the job.

"There is a despair and a desperation that I haven't heard in the past," he replies. "Now I am hearing more, 'I don't know what I am going to do.'"

"There is a lot of fear," Crawford says, returning to the call center. More phones were ringing.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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