For emergencies of a non-pandemic nature, 'If you can't remember anything else, call 211'

What can people like Jason Robertson do when their emergency is not the pandemic itself but a house fire? United Way, an organization that partners with several non profits and service organization, has a helpline for people like him.

United Way helpline connects people who need assistance with service organizations

Firefighters work to put out the fire at Jason Robertson's rented home on April 7. (Jason Robertson)

Jason Robertson is living in a hotel after the four-bedroom house he was renting burned down on April 7.

The journeyman from Wetaskiwin, Alta., along with his three-year-old son and his girlfriend — who was visiting with her daughter and grandson — weren't harmed in the fire, but most of the house was either burned beyond repair or damaged by water. 

In the middle of a pandemic, the 34-year-old had no idea where to go or what to do.

But there is an easy way to find information about how to get help, according to Allan Undheim, vice-president of community building and investment with United Way Alberta.

"If you can't remember anything else," Undheim said, "call 211."  

Coronavirus has changed how organizations have had to operate but social agencies and service providers are still functioning and can help people like Robertson, Undheim said.

The 211 helpline, which has been around since 2000 in the U.S. and Canada, connects people in need to organizations and support services that cater to their specific needs, whether it's finding shelter, food or mental health services, Undheim said. 

The United Way is a global organization that helps raise funds and recruits volunteers for non-profit organizations. In Alberta, the United Way has partnered with many social agencies and service providers including local and national mental health organizations, food banks and outreach programs, Undheim said. 

Operators with the 211 phone line will help you figure out what your need, he said.

"Explain the circumstances and then they have access to a very comprehensive database of services and support that exists here in the region or other parts of the province. And that can be a support system for somebody who has gone through a traumatic experience."

The helpline also posts updates on their website, providing the number and nature of calls made in Alberta. 

Most recent calls are related to COVID-19. Between March 8 and  April 17, Albertans contacted 211 nearly 4,300 times with pandemic-related concerns. The top three needs are information services, public health and food. 

The website also keeps tracks of unmet needs of Albertans, such as public health, food and temporary financial assistance. 

Undheim said the biggest change related to COVID-19 is being felt by organizations that provide direct services.  

"For many of them they have had to readjust their programming because of health guidelines and restrictions on groups and social distancing," he said. 

He added that although some programs and services have been temporarily suspended due to the pandemic, they might return either by changing the way they deliver their services or waiting until restrictions loosen. 

Robertson said although many people offered him financial help, including a friend who started a GoFundMe page, nobody could temporarily house his family. He said if the pandemic wasn't happening, things might have been different.

"People are pretty locked-down in their houses and don't want people who have been travelling around, going in their house every day," he said, referring to the efforts he has had to take to deal with the fire's aftermath as well as finding a new home for him and his son. 

"So I think this wasn't going down, everybody would be opening their doors to us."

With files from Alicia Asquith


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