Chronic underfunding of Vermont 211 shortchanged Vermonters when they needed help most 

The following is a joint statement from the leaders of Vermont’s local United Ways, which each contribute funding to Vermont 211, a program of United Ways of Vermont.   

by Ashley Bride, et al, United Ways of Vermont State officials repeatedly urged Vermonters to call 211 to report damages and get connected to resources in the days and weeks following July’s catastrophic flooding.  

Ten days before the disaster, Vermont 211, a program of United Ways of Vermont, cut back its hours and decreased staff due to lack of funding. Roughly 90 percent of Vermont 211’s budget comes from state contracts and funding has not increased for the past five years despite increased operating costs and high demand for services.  

As communities grappled with devastating damage and loss in the wake of historic flooding, Vermont 211 staff scrambled to respond to a record-breaking number of calls, emails, and text messages from Vermonters reporting damages and seeking help.  

In the last week of July alone, Vermont 211 received more than 3,500 calls, surpassing the total number of contacts Vermont 211 fielded in the entire month of June (less than 2,800) when they had two additional staff members.  

Not surprisingly, Vermont 211 staff struggled to keep up with the increased volume and Vermonters seeking immediate relief found themselves unable to get through or waiting for responses as a backlog grew. Despite the staffing challenges 211 helped thousands of people during the flood crisis, working tirelessly to be as effective as they could be in the circumstances.  

It was an unacceptable situation. “We can’t have these things not work for Vermonters, especially in such an awful moment in people’s lives,” United Ways of Vermont Executive Director Elizabeth Gilman told Seven Days. (See Gilman’s testimony before the Appropriations Committee from April 2023 describing 211’s funding problems.)

So how and why did this happen? The reality is that we as a state have underinvested in a service that Vermonters not only rely on in times of crisis but turn to for support and connection to a wide variety of essential resources all year long.  

Vermont 211 is the relied upon service for the state of Vermont that supports our whole community, including some of the most vulnerable. Vermont 211, a nonprofit program of United Ways of Vermont, contracts with the state to provide a variety of essential services to Vermonters: information & referral, including emergency housing; support for local community action agencies with the VITA tax program; and administering Vermont’s database for 988, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The demand for these services has only increased due to the state’s closure of the motel housing program and increased demand for mental health services despite a massive workforce shortage (also related to chronic underfunding).  

As seen during Tropical Storm Irene, Covid19, and our most recent flood, having one number for Vermonters to call for support also plays a critical role in the state’s emergency response system. Yet 211 currently receives nothing in the form of financial support from the state for emergency management services, unlike it did during the days of Irene.   

Vermont 211 leadership has made this clear to state leaders including the Legislature. Testimony at the House Appropriations hearing on April 12, 2023 summarizes a critical point from this spring at which 211 was on the brink of closing due to this chronic funding issue.   

Local United Ways across Vermont each contribute funding to Vermont 211 and have long been concerned about how repeated underfunding from the state has limited Vermont 211’s capacity and potential. A portion of flood relief fund dollars raised by local United Ways were immediately granted to Vermont 211 because we knew the program was overwhelmed and under resourced.   

With adequate investment, Vermont 211 could be an even greater community connector and amplifier of existing and essential services. It could continue to be the critical link to Vermonters in crisis. Vermont’s government relies on nonprofit programs like Vermont 211 to provide connection to vital services to communities with greater impact and speed than the government can offer; yet nonprofits are increasingly being asked to do more with less.  

Underfunding nonprofits directly impacts our communities. Vermont 211’s struggle to respond to Vermonters in crisis during July flooding is a reminder of what can happen when we fail to invest in the systems and critical services our communities rely on and deserve.   

Vermonters cannot afford to be shortchanged in accessing resources. Local United Ways are committed to working with and supporting Vermont 211 and the state to create a system that meets the diverse needs of our communities. Everyone should care about 211 being available, for all of us, all the time. We call on the state to provide the necessary investments to grow and sustain this critical resource so that we can ensure all Vermonters have an equal opportunity to thrive through connection to the local resources they need.  

·         Ashley Bride, Executive Director, United Way of Rutland County 

·         Jesse Bridges, CEO, United Way of Northwest Vermont  

·         Clarissa French, Executive Director, United Way of Lamoille County  

·         Ruben Garza, Executive Director, United Way of Windham County 

·         Tawnya Kristen, Executive Director, Green Mountain United Way 

·         Helena Van Voorst, Executive Director, United Way of Addison County