COVID-19 tests, rent payment and food were the top three pandemic-related issues for state residents who reached out to Michigan 211, a subsidiary of the Michigan Association of United Ways that connects people to resources for free through text, chat or calling 211.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Michigan 211 has maintained a dashboard that tracks calls, chats and texts (referred to as “connections”) asking for help. Michigan 211 splits these connections into two categories: COVID-related and not COVID-related.
For non-pandemic related needs, help for electric payment was the highest ask in the state.
The top three pandemic-related needs were the same for Detroit, but the need with the highest total number of calls — COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 related — was food.
According to the dashboard’s description, releasing this data allows programs and decision-makers to “develop well-informed strategies to respond to the demands of emerging needs” of Michigan residents.
Hassan Hammoud, Michigan 211’s executive director, estimates there has been a 30% increase in the volume of calls as compared to previous years, but he emphasized that this could be because the nature of the calls has skewed towards COVID-19 information.
“A lot of those shifts have gone from rent and utilities to food, to delivery of food, to medical information, and a lot of that is going to be related to COVID,” he said.
Statewide trends and new services
As of Jan. 20, there have been 364,507 total 211 connections in the state since March, and almost 35% of them were COVID-19 related, according to the dashboard.
Hammoud said the moratorium on foreclosure, evictions and utilities helped ease the need for some 211 resources, making food, food deliveries and medical information the more pressing topics during the pandemic.
And Michigan 211's role has also expanded — in June, the organization officially partnered with the state to help with COVID-19 test scheduling and benefits applications, a move beneficial to residents without internet access.
“I think we had to get special authorization from the state to be able to do benefits applications right over the phone,” Hammoud said, adding Michigan 211 had about 30,000 calls related to benefits navigation and test scheduling.
“And that was pretty revolutionary. I don't believe anybody was doing that before us.”
Then in October, Michigan 211 took over the operation of the COVID hotline.
The number of COVID-19 related connections fluctuated throughout 2020, rising to its first peak of 14,000 connections during the surge in April. It then saw similar highs in July and November — but January had shot up: 20,006 COVID-19 related connections as of Jan. 20.
This was due to Michigan 211’s third new role that became official earlier this week: a hub for vaccine information and scedhuling, Hammoud said. Last week, it had so many calls, the two of its systems crashed.
“And that's the first time that's happened in our history,” Hammoud said. “The phone system just couldn't take it.”
The top five counties with the most COVID-19 connections are Wayne (23,749), Kent (16,081), Macomb (7,924), Oakland (6,929) and Ingham County (5,870) — similar questions, but of varying priorities.
When adjusting the connections to 100,000 residents, Upper Peninsula counties Baraga and Ontonagon stand out for having more calls against their smaller populations. Both counties’ top questions were about Medicare. The 211 center in the UP also serves as the region's Area Agency on Aging, Hammoud explained.
Four cities with the most COVID-19 connections are Detroit (15,632), Grand Rapids (11,216), Lansing (5,103), Kalamazoo (3,949) and Midland (3,436).
Detroit trends and food needs
The biggest question, regardless of it being related to COVID-19, was about food pantries in Detroit — there were a total of 6,204 needs.
Food was also the top need back in April, especially among ZIP-codes hit hardest by the virus.
“Food has become more and more of an issue for people,” Hammoud said.
“The people who are vulnerable to begin with tend to struggle even more in times of crises. Detroit has a large population of folks that are vulnerable in that sense, with minorities, with elderly and that has just been exacerbated during this crisis.”
Food banks have seen a tremendous increase in distribution. A representative from Gleaners’ Community Food Bank said their organization — in its five designated counties, including Wayne County — distributed almost 19 million more pounds of food in 2020 than it did in a pre-pandemic year.
“Right now, Gleaners is operating at an 80-million-pound annual distribution rate,” the representative wrote in an email.
December had been Gleaners’ biggest food distribution month ever at 7.7 million pounds of food. According to the representative, “53,000 households were served beyond Gleaners’ usual number just through its pandemic emergency food distributions.”
“We're definitely seeing a lot more need in Detroit, but ... the great thing is we're seeing a lot more partners step up and try to meet those needs,” Hammoud said, saying community leaders are seeing food deliveries, rides and pick-ups.
Other requests Detroit residents sought out include:
- Rent payment assistance at over 3,500 total requests — 72% of which were COVID-19 related.
- Electric service payment assistance at 5,052 total requests — 35% of which were COVID-19 related.
- 1,312 requests for information about disaster-related cash grants.
Grand Rapids trends and a bigger issue ahead
While Detroit had the most connections, three of the top five ZIP codes with the most connections were from the Grand Rapids area.
The ZIP code 49507 saw the most connections at 2,381, with its top question, regardless of COVID-19, about rent payment assistance. This is the same with Grand Rapids as a whole, with almost 3,000 inquiries about rent payment assistance.
According to Hammoud, this need is related to many moratoriums on eviction that are starting to lift or have been lifted.
“When policies are taken away, that’s when a lot of these issues really, really start to bubble up,” Hammoud said, adding that he's afraid of what might be on the horizon, since many residents will face massive debt and bills once the moratoriums are gone.
“We are dealing with the immediate crises and providing these moratoriums, but there is an even bigger crisis around the corner once this is lifted,” he said.
An expanding role
Hammoud said the state partnered with Michigan 211 because the organization had the community’s trust and thorough database of about 37,000 programs across Michigan accumulated over 20 years.
"Odds are if you're struggling in one area of your life, we probably have resources and referrals to be provide you with a holistic approach to care," he said.
There have been 228,043 total COVID-19 referrals, or instances where operators have directed callers to their resource.
Adjusting to COVID was a big change for operators, he said. The team expanded, adding 100 additional employees to their usual 60 operators. Thirty-five alone are fielding vaccine questions. Michigan 211 even developed a 300-page document with the state for all things COVID.
But the nature of COVID-19 and social distancing have been a politically charged topic among some Americans, making some connections difficult when people call about things like what to do when there is a lack of masks in their area. For operators who prided themselves on having the resources, it could be difficult to leave health or mask questions unanswered.
According to the dashboard, there are more than 8,500 unmet COVID-19 needs and 31,038 total unmet needs. Hammoud said Michigan 211 does follow-up calls on a "statistically significant sample size of each month's call volume." Those numbers are currently not included in the dashboard.
Volunter Income Tax Assistance program sites and rent payment assistance have the highest number of total unmet needs.
For rent, there are 2,878 total unmet needs. One reason listed on the dashboard is because the client isn't eligble or didn't have documentation, such as an eviction notice.
"With the moratorium in place, it's illegal to evict anyone so people are calling us to look for resources, but without that eviction notice we don't have any referrals to provide because those people are technically ineligible for that program," Hammoud explained in an email. "In this instance we try to better understand the caller's circumstances and meet other needs (i.e. employment, food, cost for medicine, etc.) in an attempt to free up money somewhere else in their budget to help pay for rent, until they become eligible for rent payment assistance."
Hammoud said Michigan 211has been keeping track of the rent situation and providing data to the state and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
"...unfortunately until we get a better idea of how long the current circumstances will last it's been challenging to develop realistic support programs to address the matter," he wrote. "A lot of this is going to come to a boiling point once the moratoriums are lifted."
Going forward, Hammoud said he hoped to see Michigan organizations and decision-makers plan for the future, to ensure the response to other disasters are coordinated for the sake of vulnerable populations.
“We know middle class and upper-class families are going to recover more — they're going to get hit less hard and recover more quickly than more vulnerable populations,” he said. “And that's what I would caution everybody to really consider is that this is going to be a long time coming to fix this problem, especially for those most vulnerable communities that have been hit hardest by this.”
To use 211 services you can: dial 211 or 844-875-9211, text your ZIP code to 898211 or chat here.