Whenever disaster strikes, we are likely to get lost in the troubles of the moment. For nearly three weeks we were consumed by water. Perhaps not literally, but water has been on all of our minds. Sinkholes have sunk our morning commute. Our drowning trees have splashed across power poles. Wild waves have been crashing on roads and into houses.

As a result, many, many Coastsiders have taken the advice of city and county leaders and saved 911 for truly life-threatening emergencies. Instead, many have dialed 211. The calls — and texts — are answered by call specialists employed by the United Way Bay Area, which funnels calls for service in the proper direction. The free calls are answered by trained specialists who can provide help in 150 languages. Calls stream in from six Bay Area counties, including San Mateo County.

Over the last three weeks, many of those calls have been about flooding or other problems associated with the train of storms that has made life more difficult in California. But data collected in the United Way’s first three-month snapshot of calls, gathered from October through December 2022, largely before the bad weather, is more instructive about the ongoing troubles that are grinding down so many of us.

And what have we learned?

“We've seen an increase in calls for help from residents who are trying to keep a roof over their heads as pandemic-era assistance and protections have been lifted,” said United Way Bay Area CEO Kevin Zwick in a prepared release. “Leaders and policymakers need to listen to what residents need, especially when it comes to housing, and take action.”

The increase in calls over housing is stunning and alarming. The United Way reported 20 percent more such calls year over year. Most of the callers are among the 17 million renters in California. Forget, for a moment, the astronomical cost of housing — including first and last month’s rent and other move-in costs. Everything is more expensive. The data suggests that food insecurity is also rising. Such calls now rank second on the 211 hit list. Meanwhile, more than 7 percent of the callers seek help with mental health issues or substance abuse. This despite the fact that the state recently launched another number, 988, specifically to tackle such issues. The data shows people are also seeking more legal assistance.

Too many Bay Area residents simply don’t earn enough to live in the Bay Area. The United Way says that 25 percent of local households — representing 600,000 people — don’t have enough income for the basics: food, shelter, child care, transportation and health care. Economists estimate a family of four would need to bring in $110,000 a year to make ends meet. That’s nearly twice what two adults working full-time minimum-wage jobs would earn.

And so, eventually, people seek help. In just three months, 11,474 people summoned the courage to dial 211 and ask for help. That was before the rains came.

— Clay Lambert

Clay Lambert is the editorial director for Coastside News Group. After years working at regional daily newspapers, he began as editor of the Half Moon Bay Review in 2004.

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