For 10 years, Chee Vang's soothing voice has guided callers of United Way's 2-1-1 help line to a head-spinning list of resources for food and housing, job leads, tax help, hockey clubs and assistance for aging parents.
Vang is one of 24 Greater Twin Cities United Way 2-1-1 Information and Referral Specialists who, together, make more than 400,000 referrals annually. With access to dozens of languages and a regularly updated website, it's difficult to imagine how this community service could become more efficient or comprehensive.
But it has, thanks to a unique partnership poised to become a national model.
It began, as these things tend to, with a deficit.
About half of the calls coming into United Way's 2-1-1 (once called First Call for Help) are for basic needs, such as food, shelter, clothing and transportation, said manager Lael Tryon. (A growing number of those calls now come from the suburbs, where people who once donated to food shelves are facing the "humbling" experience of using them, she said.)
Tryon and her staff have noted another challenge. Legal-assistance referrals for low-income Minnesotans jumped 22 percent from 2008 to 2010, while state and federal funding for legal help decreased by more than 12 percent.
Although United Way 2-1-1 fields about 35,000 legal-related calls annually, referrals have tended to be off-target or redundant, overloading agencies such as Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid.
In 2012, United Way partnered with a newly formed nonprofit called Call for Justice, whose mission is to more efficiently connect low-income Minnesotans to an expanded array of legal resources regarding everything from child custody to grandparents' rights to landlord disputes.
Call For Justice Executive Director Ellie Krug developed a training program and a manual, and invited lawyers from nonprofit legal programs to United Way's headquarters to share expertise on a variety of legal basics:
What's the difference between a civil and criminal case? What roles does Legal Aid play? How do federal poverty guidelines affect who is eligible for services?
Lesser-known resources were rapidly added to United Way's database, including county self-help centers, LGBT lawyers, pro-bono interpreters and links via Call for Justice (www.callforjustice.org) to training videos on immigration law, landlord disputes and bankruptcy.
Within months, legal resources that were previously overlooked were receiving numerous calls. The most dramatic measure so far, Krug said, was an 800-percent increase in referrals to LawHelpMN.org, a web-based resource site for Legal Aid.
"Ellie has been our lifeline," Tryon said. "If we have a question, we can e-mail her directly."
Krug, a trial lawyer for more than 20 years in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, closed her practice in 2010, wanting "to do good in the world." In November 2011, Call for Justice was born in Minneapolis, a two-person initiative with $500,000 in initial funding coming from 29 law firms, the Hennepin and Ramsey County Bar Associations and the St. Paul and Bigelow Foundations.
"There is no model in the United States for what Call For Justice has been called upon to do," Krug said, noting that she has been contacted by the Louisiana Supreme Court, as well as by legal experts in Missouri and Maryland, all expressing interested in duplicating the project.
Richard Zorza featured the 2-1-1/Call For Justice partnership in his national Access To Justice blog. "Every state should be doing something like this," Zorza wrote.
The effort couldn't come at a more pressing time. While 35,000 low-income Minnesotans received legal referrals last year, another 28,000 were turned away, Krug said. Nationally, nearly 1 million people are turned away for legal services annually.
This leaves massive numbers of the low-income shut out of the legal system, or at least forced to go it alone. In Hennepin County in 2012, for example, neither party used an attorney in 95 percent of child custody cases, 66 percent of child support cases and 94 percent of domestic abuse cases.
In addition, Krug said, she's worried about the inherent unfairness if one party has no legal representation and the other does, especially when children are involved. Judges, too, express concern about assuring fairness in these cases, and their capacity to make "fully informed decisions," Krug said.
"That's where Call For Justice comes in," Krug said. "We collaborate with 2-1-1, but we are not 2-1-1. We're like the oil that helps the machine run more quickly."
Last Friday, a skilled and calm Vang put some new resources to use. After assisting two callers with free tax filing locations, she spoke with a worried woman facing a difficult landlord dispute. Vang, who also speaks Hmong, asked many questions, listened patiently and ultimately led the caller to several legal resources.
The caller was grateful, as is Krug to have found her way to this sterling partnership. "In our world of screens and telephone trees, within 15 seconds of calling 2-1-1, you talk to a human being," she said.
"All of these people are excellent at what they do, offering folks in crisis some measure of humanity and knowledge. That combination is incredibly powerful."