This year marks the 20th year the social service organization IMPACT 211 has been in existence.
Accompanying this anniversary is nearly 20 years of data that detail community needs in and around Milwaukee County that lack systemic solutions.
IMPACT 211 is a free, confidential helpline and online resource directory that connects residents to resources such as food pantries, housing shelters or even holiday gifts.
For instance, if people are looking for a meal, IMPACT 211 can quickly get them information on food pantries in their area, with a street address and hours of operation.
However, sometimes IMPACT is unable to connect people to resources they seek. Reasons for this could be, for example, because the caller refused a referral for whatever reason; the program they were referred to was out of funds or the caller is ineligible for the program; or the caller lacks reliable transportation to take advantage of the program being referred.
In 2005, the top three biggest unmet needs were finding child passenger seats, community shelter options and domestic violence shelters.
Last year, the biggest unmet needs were food (including finding food pantries and help getting groceries), help with automobile expenses (gas, repairs, etc.) and help finding household appliances.
Bob Waite, senior account manager at IMPACT, said these unmet needs offer a picture for IMPACT of problems lacking systemic solutions.
“When we make a referral, we’re making a referral to a place that is accurate and will fulfill the need,” Waite said. “But what we don’t have good data on is when someone goes there, did they get the service they were looking for.”
“That’s a hidden unmet need that we struggle trying to collect,” he added.
Diapers: A success story
When IMPACT staffers make a referral, they are looking for an organization or program that is built to handle a large volume of requests.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, residents would often call in looking for diapers. At the time, IMPACT had not identified an organization that could consistently handle the volume of requests.
United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County recently founded a diaper bank to help meet this need.
Yet IMPACT’s data points to a communal need without a systemic solution.
Dan Herda, director of communications at United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County, said in 2021, the diaper bank distributed about 200,000 diapers to local nonprofits, which then distributed them to people requesting them. Herda also noted that while this diaper bank is one of the largest distributors in the area, it is not the only one.
Herda said this is a problem that resists a long-term solution because demand for diapers will likely continue as long as children are being born.
“The fact that we distributed 200,000 diapers last year and nobody told us to stop ... tells me that there is still a need,” Herda said. He noted that United Way also is involved in advocating for diapers to be categorized as a tax-exempt expense to further alleviate this persistent need.
Waite said efforts such as this have had a noticeable effect.
“We get very few calls for diapers now,” Waite said.
Transportation: A persistent challenge
However, not all needs have found reliable solutions. Transportation to services remains a consistent issue as people are unable to get to services that IMPACT recommends, while others look for reliable transportation in their day-to-day lives.
To meet this need, IMPACT started a pilot program with Lyft to provide vouchers for callers needing transportation. It’s funded by a $10,000 grant from United Way Worldwide.
Emily Kenney, director of systems change at IMPACT, said because program funding ends at the end of December, it cannot be counted as a systemic solution to transportation gaps.
Additionally, Kenney noted that dollars spent on this rideshare program, while effective, are also dollars that could be going to the MCTS bus system, which offers a more robust solution to transportation needs.
“We do have a public transportation system, so to what extent should we be putting money there … versus an alternative system?” Kenney asked.
“On the other hand, this is something that is working and nimble. Whereas public systems are not as nimble,” she added.
For more information
Learn more about IMPACT 211 here.
You can also donate to the organization here.