During moments of desperation, Arizonans routinely rely on a 211 crisis hotline for help.
"Everyone knows about 211. I've referred other people to them. I’ve called them myself about shelter," said Enrique Troche, sitting on a street corner recently near the CASS homeless shelter in Phoenix.
But the nonprofit that manages the hotline has signaled it is running out of financial support, and an effort to restore state funds to the hotline failed earlier this year. The bill was left to die at the committee-level after a socially conservative think tank raised alarm bells because three phone calls to the hotline in 2018 inquired about abortion services.
"The fact that three phone calls were able to bring that program to a halt is irresponsible,” said Sen. Heather Carter, R-Phoenix on Wednesday. “I am pro-life and we need to keep the system available for our moms, for our elderly, for our veterans."
Carter sponsored a bill that would have restored $1.5 million to the program. For the second year in a row, the bill failed despite having bi-partisan support at the committee level.
The hotline was used more than 900,000 times in 2018, according to testimony provided in a legislative hearing earlier this year. Described by one lawmaker as “a statewide rolodex” for services, it most often refers callers to nonprofits that specialize in mental health, housing and healthcare.
State lawmakers eliminated funding for the program during the recession, and nonprofits have since stepped in to keep it afloat. But the hotline only has people answering phones part-time, during the week.
"We need the funding now so we can keep the phone system running, ultimately for 24/7," said Carter, who is Vice-Chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
The socially conservative Center for Arizona Policy is considered responsible for halting the bill’s progress. CAP President Cathi Herrod issued a statement to 12 News Wednesday, saying she doesn't oppose funding for 211.
“When lawmakers were considering continued funding, I simply suggested an amendment to ensure taxpayer money did not fund the promotion of abortion, which is a longstanding state policy,” Herrod said. “I agree with the majority of Arizonans who also do not want taxpayer money used to refer people to abortion providers.”
Supporters of the bill point out that more than a thousand calls to the hotline in 2018 also related to adoption services, and the state’s largest nonprofits that support family services were on-the-record in support of the bill.
Herrod says it is misleading to make the issue about “only a few calls” because 211 also operates a website that refers users to Planned Parenthood.