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United Way phone connects to help

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 9, 2003

PORT RICHEY -- At last count, Pasco County had two home-delivered meals programs, four low-cost dental clinics, seven agencies helping pregnant women and 20 groups assisting disabled residents.

And the number of programs to help needy people pay their rent or utility bills? Too many to count.

People needing such help, however, can start with one number: 1-877-828-UWAY (1-877-828-8929). That's the toll-free help line operated by the United Way of Pasco County, which provides referrals to the hundreds of social service agencies that can help people in need. The line gets about 65 calls a day.

"Most of the time people are calling for help with basic needs: utilities, prescription drugs or shelter," local United Way president Susan Arnett said. "Sometimes they call instead of calling directory assistance. A lot of times it's hard to navigate the phone book and find the help they need."

Volunteers such as Bobbie Turner answer the line from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Callers can also leave voice mail messages after hours, and someone will call them back.

Sometimes the callers are parents who need counseling for their troubled children.

Sometimes they're adults outside Florida, seeking assistance for their elderly parents in Pasco County.

Sometimes they need help paying bills or finding a place to stay after hitting tough financial times.

And sometimes they're people who have been ordered by a judge to perform community service, and they have no idea where to start.

"If you can think of a question, I've probably heard it," Turner said.

United Way set up the toll-free number last summer, after funding cuts forced a similar referral line, First Call for Help, to shut down. Although the United Way number spread by word of mouth, Arnett said, it remains unknown to many of the people who need it most.

The United Way is also kicking around the idea of a more extensive "211" help line.

The system already exists in Hernando, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, where people can dial 211 at any hour to get referrals to social service agencies. The shorter number is easier to remember, and the referrals are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The United Way is looking at several possibilities. It could piggyback onto the 211 systems in neighboring counties, although it is unclear at this point what the cost would be, Arnett said.

The group could also start a separate 211 system in Pasco County, but it could cost about $400,000 to launch it, she said.

"If the money's going to that, then it's not going to the agencies that meet those needs, and that's part of what we need to look at," Arnett said.

If the group decides a 211 system isn't feasible at this time, it would stick to its toll-free number, she said.

Arnett figures one number -- even a long one -- is better than none.

-- Bridget Hall Grumet covers social services in Pasco County. She can be reached at 352-521-5757 ext. 23 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6108, then 23. Her e-mail address is bhall@sptimes.com .

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