Toronto: Need help finding information about government programs and services?

by Theresa Wojtasiewicz

Findhelp can help!

You are on your way home from work. It has been raining heavily for several hours, and when you reach the parking lot where you left your car, you see a tree has fallen across the entrance/exit, blocking it. Who do you call for help?

You are a teenager who has been told to leave the home of one family member, and you are trying to find your way to the home of another. Right now you are in Toronto with nowhere to go for food or shelter. Who do you call for help?

You are a Farsi-speaking woman who has applied for subsidized housing but you are having difficulty communicating with the housing authority due to a language barrier. Who do you call for help?

Since June, 2002, these questions and many others can be answered by calling 2-1-1 on your phone.

211 started in the United States in 1999, and was introduced to Toronto by Findhelp, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping people find community, social, health and related government services. Findhelp’s database contains information on 20,000 programs and services in Toronto alone, and access to over 60,000 programs and services across Ontario. Information is collected by Findhelp’s resource editors and many others at organizations throughout the province.

Findhelp, incorporated as a non-profit organization in the 1970s, has been helping people since 1935. The agency was set up to ensure that people who need access to government services can find them by simply calling one number instead of having to guess which is the right number to call. Findhelp counsellors have been trained and certified in special skills – how to listen, how to answer questions in a way that’s easy to understand, and how to find the information being asked for.

Language is often the first barrier to getting access to information. At Findhelp, they have people on staff fluent in 16 languages. Agencies they contact on behalf of the caller may have access to even more languages. If none of those have anyone who speaks the language of the caller, Findhelp can call an interpreter service who can provide them with a choice of 180 languages – nearly every language spoken anywhere in the world!

Prior to 2002, Findhelp provided their information through a regular telephone number. Since bringing in the 211 number, calls to Findhelp have increased. Even with the increased demand, Findhelp ensures that at least 90 percent of their calls will be answered in 45 seconds. You will always get a counsellor to speak to – there is no automated operator giving you menu options. In addition, the service is entirely confidential – the counsellor cannot see your telephone number and will give you the information you are looking for without asking you for any personal information (unless it’s necessary to carry out your request).

For newcomers to Canada for whom English is not their first language, having access to a help line staffed by people who really know how to listen is important. Sometimes you might need to find out about a government service but may not know the right question to ask or what you should be asking about. The counsellor will listen carefully not only to your question, but also to your situation, in order to direct you to the right agency or government office. The types of enquiries Findhelp typically answers for newcomers deal with immigration and citizenship issues, income assistance, housing, child care, food, settlement assistance, legal issues, education and employment.

For those who are more comfortable with accessing information via the internet, the information available through the 211 telephone help line is also available on the internet at www.211Toronto.ca. This website has the option to search by keyword. If you are not certain about which keyword you should use, you can refer to the list of the most frequently requested topics. The site is available in English or French, except for the topic of women’s shelters and support, which is available in English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Hindi, Tamil and Urdu.

Linked to the 211Toronto site is a list of partner sites, some of which are part of Findhelp and others which work with Findhelp to provide access to information. www.HospitalityWorks.ca
This is a portal (a portal is bigger than a website because it provides a single location that connects to millions of websites on the internet) that is connected with the Findhelp database to access information about jobs in the hospitality industry. It also includes articles about support you may need while employed (for example, child care). www.poss.ca
The Possibilities Online Employment Resource Centre is another portal, to help people looking for jobs find what employment information is available on the web. It includes articles about different kinds of jobs, understanding your pay stub, training opportunities and other topics of interest in searching for jobs. It also has links to job boards and services, job fairs, workshops and seminars, and on-line access to an employment specialist. Opening an account is free and gets you access to all of the resources on this site. www.poss.ca/neo/home
This is a “micro-site” connected to poss.ca, which collects the articles from poss.ca specifically written for newcomers, such as Credential Assessment, Language Classes, First Jobs and Canadian Experience. It also has links to a directory of services for English language training, credentials, job search workshops, etc. This site also requires you to register, but again, it’s free.

www.poss.ca/youth

Another “micro-site” of poss.ca, this one focuses on information about services for youth. Under the Groups topic, for example, the kinds of questions youths might ask about have been gathered under eight headings, of which two are for newcomer youths and youths from specific cultures. The links here tie back into the 211Toronto.ca database with a list of topics that are specific to services for youth.

At present, the 211 Community Connection information help line and website is available in Toronto (www.211Toronto.ca), Simcoe County (www.211SimcoeCounty.ca), and the Niagara Region (www.211Niagara.ca) in Ontario, and in Edmonton and Calgary in Alberta. Findhelp’s goal is to expand internet access across all of Ontario so that people can access the 60,000 programs and services available Ontario-wide (presently, the 211Ontario.ca site is not searchable). Another goal is to have the 211 telephone help line available throughout Ontario and the rest of Canada within the next five years. This would be of considerable help to newcomers who may have family settled in different cities across the province or country, or who are perhaps considering moving to another location and who will need access to information about services available elsewhere.

If you have a question about anything related to a government service or program, you can call 211 in Toronto, Niagara Region and Simcoe County. Outside of these areas, you can use Findhelp’s helpline number 416-397-INFO(4636), although long distance charges apply. For people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech-impaired, Findhelp offers Text Telephone or “TTY” service, 416-392-3778. 211 is there to help you get the information you need, in any language, 24 hours a day.

CNM

Quick Fact: 30% of callers have lived in Canada six years or less. Newcomers are more likely to face employment barriers, earn lower incomes on average, and have greater difficulty accessing housing and other services.

Quick Fact: Newcomers are almost three times more likely to contact 211 than non-newcomers.

From the 2005 Annual Report for 211 Community Connect / Findhelp