Cold weather drives up 211 calls for assistance

A man uses a smartphone in New Orleans to make a cellular call in this Aug. 11, 2019 file photo. (AP/Jenny Kane)
A man uses a smartphone in New Orleans to make a cellular call in this Aug. 11, 2019 file photo. (AP/Jenny Kane)


The season's cold weather puts more strain on the 211 hotline than the Thanksgiving holiday, according to the president of the United Way of Northwest Arkansas.

"We get calls from people heating their homes with their ovens," President Jackie Hancock Jr. said in an interview Tuesday.

The Lowell-based nonprofit operates the 211 system for the state. The system takes calls from those in need, coordinating assistance from a variety of businesses, nonprofits and government agencies around Arkansas. Assistance ranges from help paying heating bills or getting food to clearing damage from storms.

"You can almost follow the path of a tornado in real time from the calls we get," Dallas Mudd, executive director of the 211 system, said in an earlier interview. "Calls come in telling us people need help removing a tree that's down or that their neighbor's pickup truck has flipped over."

Calls to 211 spiked with the onset of cold weather this month, but exact figures are not yet available, Hancock said. Those in need can call 211 or the system's toll-free number at (866) 489-6983. They can also text their zip code to 898211 or use the internet link at the Arkansas 211 website.

United Way of Northwest Arkansas became 211 administrator for the entire state by asking for it, Hancock and Mudd said. An earlier attempt to take the system statewide failed. The Northwest Arkansas group decided to keep the service open for residents of Benton, Madison and Washington counties. The system operated so well, the group offered to run a system statewide. Then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson agreed.

The day the system went statewide, in March 2020, Hutchinson declared a state of emergency over the covid pandemic.

"The day we switched the system on was the day the governor announced I couldn't go get a haircut," Hancock quipped.

The new 211 system was flooded with calls, Hancock said, as businesses temporarily shut down and workers lost their jobs. The annual cost to the United Way of Northwest Arkansas to run 211 statewide is approximately $900,000, he said.

Cold weather prompts requests for assistance with heating bills to those without homes searching for a warming shelter, Hancock said. Among other utilities, nonprofits and businesses, Hancock highlighted the contributions in heating assistance of the utility company Black Hills Energy.

Besides the dangers of low temperatures, members of households calling for assistance often face safety risks, said both Hancock and Robin Mizell, community affairs manager for Black Hills. For instance, the home ovens Hancock mentioned are not built to provide high heat for days on end and can emit dangerous fumes over long periods of time, they said. Those in homes with inadequate central heating often resort to other expedients such as space heaters that can be a fire hazard if used improperly.

Inspectors from Black Hills are available to spot such safety hazards and also provide advice for making homes less drafty and more energy-efficient, Mizell said. The company also has "budget billing" as an option to spread the high cost of heating into bills throughout the year, she said.

"With the cost of everything from food to gas going up, people need help paying their bills," Mizell said.

The Black Hills Cares program assisted 155 families or households representing 381 individuals with their energy bills in Arkansas in 2022, and for the first half of 2023, the program assisted 118 families or households representing 305 individuals in Arkansas, Mizell said. Those figures show close to as many people assisted in the first six months of this year as those in all of 2022.

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On the web

Arkansas 211 website:

https://arkansas211.org

United Way of Northwest Arkansas:

https://unitedwaynwa.org

Arkansas Payment Assistance, Black Hills Energy:

https://www.blackhillsenergy.com/assistance-programs/arkansas-payment-assistance