211 call volume doubles with coronavirus closures

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Calls for help to the United Way’s 211 hotline spiked when West Michigan businesses started shutting down to slow the spread of coronavirus.

211 is a free 24-hour hotline that connects people with services for everything from necessities like food, shelter and clothing to more advanced help for specialized needs.

“Our calls here in our region have gone up about 50%,” Sherri Vainavicz, director of 211 at Heart of West Michigan United Way, said. “They’re doubled from the same time as last year.”

She has been tracking call volume and why people are asking for help. Their biggest need: food assistance.

“It hasn’t changed in the seven weeks since the pandemic was announced,” she said.

Fortunately, Vainavicz said few have gone hungry. 211 operators direct callers to local food pantries while also assisting them in enrolling for federal food stamp benefits.

But not all needs can be as easily met.

“When you get into personal care items, toiletries, shampoos and soap… that’s where people are really struggling now,” Vainavicz said.

She said these items are often overlooked. They can’t be purchased with food stamps and are rarely thought of by those making donations.

“If you’re struggling to feed your family, you can imagine how hard it is to get the extra items,” Vainavicz said. “And really, we call them ‘extra items,’ but they’re not. We need them for our own personal hygiene.”

The community can help fill the need by donating personal care items, either buying them to donate or giving from your own personal stash.

“I’ve noticed in the stores that there is some toilet paper starting to appear on the shelves, so (I’m hoping) people are more willing to donate the extras that they purchased in the event of a true crisis,” Vainavicz said.

Donating is simple and safe. You can dial 211 and be directed to the nearest curbside donation drop-off site.


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