Power suppliers support PA 2-1-1 Southwest help line

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A year ago, gas and electric utilities that serve the Pittsburgh area pledged to underwrite PA 2-1-1 Southwest, a free help line for people who need assistance obtaining housing, food and a range of human services.

On Tuesday, that pledge became a commitment as natural gas supplier Peoples announced that, together with electric power supplier Duquesne Light, it would allocate about $450,000 annually over three years to support the help line's operation.

"A big part of every utility is outreach to those consumers who are low-income and have challenges paying their bills," said Morgan O'Brien, chief executive of North Shore-based Peoples.

2-1-1, a nationwide service staffed by operators trained to assess callers' problems and then refer them to social service agencies, is affiliated with United Way chapters throughout the country.

The first such line was launched by the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta in 1997, and the service is now accessible to people in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.

It was rolled out by United Way of Allegheny County in 2011 and has since expanded to 11 counties in southwestern Pennsylvania. The help line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Last year, 2-1-1 handled almost 57,000 calls in southwestern Pennsylvania. The highest number came from individuals seeking help with housing issues, said Mr. O'Brien, who currently chairs the board of United Way of Allegheny County.

According to a United Way report, utility issues generated the second-highest amount of calls to 2-1-1 Southwest last year followed by inquiries for help with tax returns.

"There's a common thread," said Mr. O'Brien. "If you have trouble paying your utility bill, you probably have challenges feeding your family, or paying the rent or mortgage."

The new funding commitment should expand the service so that it can handle close to 100,000 callers annually, United Way said. Those in need can also access help through a website, www.pa211southwest.org.

Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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