United Way sees increased requests for assistance

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 With more people seeking assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Way of Washington County believes it is well-equipped to handle the needs of residents.

Washington County’s branch of the United Way is part of the organization’s southwestern region, which also includes Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, Mercer, Somerset and Westmoreland counties.

The United Way of Washington County funds 30 programs that help people with education, financial stability and health.

Any call to United Way’s 211 helpline goes to its center in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, and those callers are directed to services in their area.

“The staff up there are called resource navigators,” said P. Ann Hrabik, executive director of the United Way of Washington County. “One of their first questions they ask the individuals is where are you calling from ... They are able to pull up on their screen resources that would be available.”

United Way makes detailed information about requests for assistance available on pa.211counts.org. In Washington County, requests for housing assistance went from 51 in February to 87 in March.

According to Richard LaPratt Jr., data and technology director for the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, traffic to pa211sw.org increased 140% this past April compared to April 2019.

The United Way 211 helpline also accepts text messages at 898211. According to LaPratt, there was a 267% increase in usage of the text line among the 11 counties in the southwestern region.

In Washington County, there were 419 total requests last month compared to 381 last year.

In an email, LaPratt outlined how the agency has ramped up efforts to handle an increase in calls to 211. This includes the training of 35 United Way volunteers to respond to texts and chats during peak hours.

He also said they expect contacts for food, utilities and housing assistance for at least another six months, and will continue beyond the reopening of the economy.

“Everyone is uncertain what’s really going to happen,” Hrabik said. “It’s just not going to be back to normal instantly.”

Hrabik said calls used to go directly to the Washington County office, but those being shifted to Pittsburgh allows for them to better focus their resources on getting assistance to those in need.

While there are more requests for assistance, Hrabik said that was expected, and is not worried about being able to handle the increased volume.

“Unfortunately, with the current situation, the need immediately became apparent. Even with people who never have ever considered calling 211,” Hrabik said.

More important for the United Way of Washington County is raising awareness that the 211 helpline is available to Pennsylvanians in need. Before the pandemic, the organization had entered into a partnership with Lamar Advertising to set up billboards promoting 211.

“I immediately reached out to them, and they stepped up. They have been promoting on six additional billboards,” Hrabik said.

Hrabik thinks the current crisis has also led to more people wanting to donate to the United Way so they can continue to help the community.

“I think people have become very generous. We really value our existing donors,” Hrabik said.