With a winter storm bearing down on New England, some homeless people may seek emergency refuge. During the day, they may ask for housing help in person at a Vermont Human Services office. After business hours, they can call VT 2-1-1. On evenings and weekends, those 2-1-1 calls are re-routed to Maine.
But at least one call center employee in that state thinks this system is not ideal.
People need emergency housing for many reasons. Perhaps they’re homeless, or about to be. Their homes may have lost heat. They may fear domestic violence. Or can’t pay their rent. But not just anyone can pick up the phone and instantly get a free motel room from the state. After business hours, determining who qualifies for that subsidy is up to call center workers like Beth Duddy. She is based not in Vermont, but Maine.
“I’d say 50 percent of the people who call qualify on average, and I have to decide,” Duddy said.
When someone calls VT 2-1-1 with a story of housing hardship, if it's after 8 p.m., or on a weekend, the call is routed to Maine. That's where Duddy and her co-workers research confidential records to see if the caller is already in the social service system and meets Vermont’s complex eligibility requirements. In extreme emergencies, including cold weather, those rules can be waived until the needy applicant seeks assistance in person in Vermont.
But meanwhile, Duddy says, call center workers have access to private information, including callers’ social security numbers. They make about $12 an hour. Duddy believes they don't get enough training to make what can be life-or-death decisions based on private information, such as whether the client is pregnant, or abused, or recently released from jail.
“Resource and referral specialists in Maine should not be looking into protected confidential Vermont state records and it needs to stop,” Duddy said.
In Duddy’s case, it has stopped, because after she began criticizing the 2-1-1 system last week she says was told not to report to work this week. She says she had been planning to resign, anyway. And Duddy stresses that the 2-1-1 service is crucially important in both Maine and Vermont. She just thinks it needs to be improved if it crosses state lines.
But Vermont officials defend the way the two-state system works. They out-source the after-hours help line to United Ways of Vermont. That non-profit agency's VT 2-1-1 director MaryEllen Mendl says all call center workers get 40 to 50 hours of training before they go on telephone duty, and they sign confidentiality agreements.
“And we also bring that training to Maine staff as well, including the employee who has reached out to you. She was in two face-to face trainings last year with my staff, with the experts,” Mendl said.
The employee, Beth Duddy, says those sessions were helpful but not sufficient to prepare call workers to field tough questions.
Sean Brown is the deputy commissioner for economic services in the state Department for Children and Families, which oversees these emergency benefits. He says Vermont does not get enough calls after 8 p.m. to justify hiring in-state staff. And he also says he understands Duddy’s privacy concerns. But Brown says after-hours calls made during emergencies, including cold weather, do not require a deep dive into private data to connect the homeless caller to either a shelter or, if that is unavailable, a motel.
“There are very few questions we ask of individuals,” Brown said. "One is do they have another place to stay, and then do they have any financial resources of their own to provide that housing?”
If the answers are “no,” Brown says the call specialist locates shelter space or makes the motel reservation. He says further questions about longer-term eligibility are handled the next day by workers in Vermont, who extend the housing benefit only after meeting the applicant face-to face.