Following a year in which many South Dakota residents found themselves with questions about where to turn for assistance, a helpline has plans to connect thousands in the area with answers beginning Feb. 11.

People in Davison, Hanson, Sanborn and Aurora counties will be able to dial 211 to get help from the Helpline Center, thanks to state and local funding and a partnership between Mitchell United Way and several other area businesses and organizations.

“It seemed like nobody had the push to get it started, and so United Way said, ‘We will be the catalyst to get it going,” Mitchell United Way Executive Director Dave Stevens told The Daily Republic last week.

Access to the helpline costs about 92 cents per person per year and is determined on a county by county basis. The 211 Helpline Center connects people in registered counties who might not be able to get the type of assistance they need by calling 911 with a wide variety of resources.

“Some of the most common reasons that people might dial 211 are basic needs, what I would describe as people that are looking for things such as housing, shelter (or) financial assistance such as helping to pay rent or utility payments," Helpline Center CEO Janet Kittams told The Daily Republic on Tuesday. "Another common reason that people would dial 211 would include any type of mental health or substance abuse issues."

Kittams said the Helpline Center, which goes through an accreditation process every five years, is a blended call center, meaning the staff is trained to handle crisis intervention calls, such as with people who are suicidal, as well as non-emergent calls from those who are seeking information on housing resources or need help determining what level of government they should contact.

The helpline has been available to some South Dakota residents since 2001, though it was only during the 2019 legislative session that partial funding from the state was approved.

Senate Bill 8 allowed the Department of Social Services to provide each county with 50 percent of the funding needed to gain access to the helpline, or 46 cents per person per year. Funding for the other 46 cents per person per year is left up to each county, and counties that don’t pay that amount currently don’t have access to the helpline.

The bill was signed into law by Gov. Kristi Noem on March 29. Rep. Lance Koth, R-Mitchell, Rep. Paul Miskimins, R-Mitchell, and Sen. Josh Klumb, R-Mount Vernon, all of whom represent District 20, all voted in favor of the state allocating funds to a resource hotline.

Kittams said counties can access the funds allocated by the state by submitting an application to the helpline. Kittams then reviews the application and submits it to DSS, and county and state funds then go directly to the helpline.

The helpline’s cost is split equally in Sanborn and Aurora counties between United Way, the respective counties’ commissions and Central Electric Cooperative’s Operation Roundup, which rounds participating Central Electric customers’ bills to the nearest dollar and donates the difference to local causes. In Hanson County, funding will come from Central Electric, United Way, the county commission and TrioTel Communications.

In Davison County, the annual cost of $9,400 will be paid by partnerships with United Way, Central Electric, the Davison County Commission, Mitchell City Council, the Palace City Lions, the Mitchell Area Charitable Foundation and the Sam F. Weller Family Foundation.

Twenty-five other South Dakota counties, including McCook, Miner and Hutchinson counties, have already implemented the helpline, giving 75 percent of the state’s population access. Brule, Codington, Kingsbury, Campbell and Oglala Lakota counties are also scheduled to gain access to 211 early this year. The Pierre and Aberdeen areas received access to the service in 2018.

The Helpline Center also assists people with questions about non-emergency disaster situations, such as completing assessment reports for damage sustained in last September's flooding. At that point, Kittams said, thousands of calls came in from 10 affected counties which were registered with the helpline at the time.

"What people were doing was, they were calling 911. Well, that really wasn’t the purpose of 911, and so the helpline center, they took something like 30,000 calls during that flooding period," Stevens said. "While we don’t know what is going to happen this spring, there is a widespread belief that there will be lots of issues with weather and flooding and things coming into the spring, and that’s why we want to make sure we launch soon.”