United Way of Greater Chattanooga seeks public funding for 2-1-1 service

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Lesley Scearce, president and CEO at United Way of Greater Chattanooga, speaks at the United Way location on Market Street on June 10.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Lesley Scearce, president and CEO at United Way of Greater Chattanooga, speaks at the United Way location on Market Street on June 10.

The United Way of Greater Chattanooga has led Hamilton County's 211 social services help line for more than 40 years, and when the pandemic hit in March 2020, CEO Lesley Scearce estimates the volume of calls grew by approximately 400% overnight.

"We immediately began to ramp up the capabilities for 211 to respond to this need in the community," she told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in a phone interview Friday, "but what we thought is that it would be a short-term spike in community need that would over time subside."

That didn't end up being the case, and in an effort to maintain that sustained level of service, the United Way is now seeking financial assistance from the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County.

After hearing a presentation about the program Wednesday, the County Commission will decide this week whether to award the United Way of Greater Chattanooga's 211 program $500,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funding, an amount renewable for two more years.

The budget for the 211 service quadrupled in 2020, Scearce said, and is still sitting at that level. Scearce said the funding from the county would directly support the program's staffing, technology and operations.

"Over two years later, the call rates are still incredibly high," Scearce said.

She believes there's a few reasons for that. During the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, the 211 service had far higher visibility. Former Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger frequently mentioned the program during news conferences, and EPB has referred customers struggling to pay their utility bills to the line for assistance.

"We just constantly had community partners amplifying 211 in a far greater way," Scearce said.

Needs have also become more pronounced. Before the pandemic, 42% of households in Chattanooga and Hamilton County were employed but struggled to meet basic needs. Similarly, 75% of households with children in central and south Chattanooga couldn't afford the cost of living. Scearce said it's likely those numbers have since increased.

The United Way of Greater Chattanooga's 211 program connects callers with resources that fit their specific needs, including employment, health services, housing, food assistance, child care and more. It's a function Scearce said would otherwise fall on the city or county.

On Wednesday, county commissioners debated whether to go ahead and vote on the funding but ultimately opted to wait a week in order to evaluate the request alongside those already made by other organizations.

United Way had initially requested $500,000. Commissioner Tim Boyd, R-East Brainerd, suggested the body make the amount recurring for two more years, bringing the proposed total to $1.5 million.

Hamilton County has received about $71.4 million in federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act, passed last year by Democrats in Congress. Taking into account allocations the panel approved during its meeting Wednesday, the county now has about $33.8 million available.

A significant portion of the county's funding is going to the Water & Wastewater Treatment Authority. On Wednesday, commissioners also approved $1.5 million for equipment purchases by the county's volunteer fire departments, $2 million for renovations to the Tivoli Center, $100,000 for Girls Inc. and $50,000 for the Urban League.

The county has so far approved these grants from its $71.4 million ARPA allotment:

- EMS ambulance equipment upgrades: $3.3 million.

- Portable morgue: $39,000.

- Light House Collective: $100,000.

- WWTA: $29.2 million.

- Broadband expansion with Volunteer Electric - to match state grant for up to $6,156,713: $615,600.

- Broadband expansion with Bledsoe Telephone Co-op - to match state grant for up to $400,000: $40,000.

- Volunteer fire departments - one-time capital allocation: $1.5 million.

- Tivoli center renovation: $2 million.

- Girls Inc. (BookWorm): $100,000.

- Urban League: $50,000.

- 4-Site VHF analog simulcast paging system: $665,000.

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd.