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Amid coronavirus, Tampa Bay’s crisis centers and hotlines brace for flood

Some lines are already getting surges in calls. Others expect them in days or weeks. Here’s what they’re doing to help.
Thomas Young, right, takes a call for someone in need of counseling at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay in Tampa on March 18, 2019. The center has seen a surge in calls about coronavirus over the past few weeks, with callers asking for help getting food, financial security, medical care or emotional support. Some other area hotlines, such as those run by shelters for domestic violence survivors, haven't yet seen an increase in calls but are preparing for one. [JONES, OCTAVIO | Tampa Bay Times]

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At a crisis call center in Tampa, those who answer the phones are talking with some callers five or six times longer than usual. At a shelter for domestic violence survivors in Hillsborough County, social workers are learning to use technology to help people who can’t come to them in person.

And at one in St. Petersburg, a CEO is preparing for a surge in calls to the organization’s hotline — a surge that will begin in days or weeks and has no definable endpoint.

”This COVID-19 is incredibly traumatic," said Lariana Forsythe, CEO of St. Petersburg’s Community Action Stops Abuse, or CASA. “People have no idea what to do.”

As the coronavirus pandemic simultaneously forces people into isolation and amplifies stress, organizations that run hotlines or crisis call centers in the Tampa Bay area said they’re already getting more calls than normal or, like Forsythe, anticipating imminent spikes.

At the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, which answers Hillsborough County calls to the 2-1-1 help line, coronavirus has already created a flood of calls. Clara Reynolds, the center’s president and CEO, said the organization’s contact center fields about 1,500 calls a week, and operators help connect callers to the community services they need. But the week of March 14 brought 1,800, including more than 400 calls specifically about coronavirus, compared to just 36 coronavirus calls the prior week.

“One of the things that has made this a little bit more intense is that it is taking a lot longer for us to deescalate folks so that we can talk to them about solutions," Reynolds said, adding that these calls may last 40 minutes, whereas the center’s average call takes seven. "Folks are so heightened, they’re so concerned, they need that opportunity just to vent to someone who is not sitting right next to them at home.”

Most of the handful of coronavirus-related calls that came to the center in the first half of March were from people in need of emotional support, the center’s data showed. Those calls persisted as the overall number surged, but they weren’t as plentiful as those looking for food or financial help as the pandemic began to hammer Florida’s economy.

The United Way of Pasco County — which helps that county’s 2-1-1 callers get services, though its employees aren’t the ones actually answering the phones — has seen similar increases: Requests for food assistance during a recent five-day window were nearly triple what they were during five days around Hurricane Irma in 2017, a spokesman said.

Those kinds of agencies are likely getting so many calls already because they connect callers to basic services needed to live — help with food, housing, money, medical care. Those with specialized hotlines for domestic violence survivors, such as CASA and The Spring of Tampa Bay, said their call volume has stayed normal in recent weeks but will probably shoot up soon.

There are two reasons for that, Forsythe said. One is that the longer a domestic abuser and a victim spend in the same isolated space, the greater the potential for violence. The other is that people will tend to address the basics of human survival before they can figure out how to get out of dangerous situations.

“I think that when we’re talking about hotline calls, we’re kind of looking at people addressing basic needs first,” she said. "'How do I stay safe from this illness? How do I get food? How do I put a roof over my head?' ... Once those things have flushed out to be whatever they’re going to be, that’s when we move to the next level of, ‘I don’t think that I’m physically safe, and how do I start addressing those other needs?’

“The human condition can only deal with so many stressors at one time.”

Despite the increasing call volume, these centers and organizations said they didn’t anticipate getting overwhelmed. Reynolds said the Crisis Center has kept its staffing levels at normal while some employees shift to remote work. Forsythe and Kelly Sinn, the CEO of Sunrise of Pasco County, said their hotlines are based out of their shelters, with staff working both on the hotlines and in-person with residents, so staffers are still going in to work.

Mindy Murphy, CEO of The Spring of Tampa Bay, said staff there have the ability to use hotline phones from home, but that everyone is still working in person for now. In anticipation of an upcoming flood of calls, The Spring has changed shift schedules and moved staff between departments so they’re available to answer phones as needed.

And the fact that some people seeking help will be unable or reluctant to visit The Spring in-person has pushed the organization to embrace technology it’s shied away from in the past, Murphy said. She said many domestic violence organizations have avoided much modern technology because it could put people at risk: Abusers may read victims’ emails or texts, break into their phones or track their locations. But she realized that video-chat could be important in maintaining connections with people in need after their initial calls, so she paid for a year’s worth of Zoom.

“There’s a natural hesitancy to do anything that could potentially create risk, but being forced to kind of explore things has been the unintended blessing of this,” she said. "My underlying belief is that our staff is comfortable using this, and there’s a segment of people where this might be a really great gift.”

Aside from all the services these call centers and hotlines explicitly provide, they also offer something that for many may be in shorter supply by the day: Someone to talk to.

Living under isolation may mean losing touch with the people we talk to every day — coworkers, neighbors, rec league teammates, fellow churchgoers, extended family. Mordecai Dixon, who directs the call center at the Crisis Center, said that loss can translate into real grief, which creates a need for emotional support.

“When they’re taken from us, we feel disconnected, and we start to feel despondent,” he said. “Connectedness keeps us safe. It keeps us alive. We want to promote connectedness but in a safe kind of way."

For his team, that will mean getting more calls and having longer conversations. It may mean that callers need to be more patient — but there will always be someone, eventually, picking up the phone.

“We are here,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere.”

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