The Maricopa County Rent and Utility Assistance Call Center provides critical support for clients seeking various rent and utility assistance through the Maricopa County Human Services Department. The Call Center of five staff serves hundreds of clients each month by assisting clients through difficult and complex application processes and allows vulnerable persons to obtain the supports they need. The Call Center may act as an effective model for how other jurisdictions can provide rental and utility assistance.
Problem or Need for the Program
Maricopa County is home to over 4.3 million people, residing in 24 cities, towns and unincorporated areas covering 9,224 square miles. The Maricopa County Human Services Department (HSD) provides a wide array of services to those residing within the county, including but not limited to rental and utility assistance, workforce development, and early head start support. As a Community Action Agency, Maricopa County is designed to provide crisis payments to clients in need, by leveraging partnerships with cities, towns, municipalities, and nonprofits organizations. A significant amount of this work is performed by the HSD Community Services Division (CSD).
In addition to programs such as the low-income home energy assistance program (LIHEAP) and other utility assistance programs, CSD distributes federally granted rental and utility assistance through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERA). When the COVID-19 pandemic began, CSD saw a dramatic increase in applications for their services, particularly ERA, because many individuals were experiencing changes in their lives that put them at risk of homelessness and housing instability. During the initial weeks of the pandemic staff and management saw that its existing data system was inadequate to address the needs of clients in a timely manner. With the expectation of needing to serve more than 600 clients/households per month for just the ERA program alone, CSD and HSD leadership recognized that additional staff would not fully address this issue and CSD needed a robust data system to allow it to effectively handle the increased demand for services. However, even after implementing this data system, staff and management, through user testing, found that the complexity of the application process could cause many difficulties for clients in applying for CSD services. Management realized it needed to support this online presence with staff who could help clients navigate the application process. CSD addressed this gap by establishing a call center for services.
Description of the Program
As mentioned, to ensure fast and responsive services to their clients, Maricopa County CSD upgraded its data system which provided a far more seamless and automatic system which allowed applicants to apply for services online 24/7 for any of their services. As a result of an online presence, CSD increased their internal staffing levels to establish a CSD Call Center that would provide direct support to any clients that needed assistance. This Call Center works through CSD’s upgraded data system and allows clients to interact live with the support team rather than wait for their e-mail or voicemail to receive a response.
A team of five (5) staff lead this new call center and allowed CSD as a whole to assist seven times as many applications as they were capable of prior to the pandemic. These experienced staff members help clients through a myriad of issues in applying for CSD services and allowed for a much better client experience. Additionally, the Call Center team created a system that recorded every incoming call and their request. The system continues to help the team coordinate and address application questions more efficiently and helps ensure client questions/issues are resolved in a timely manner; often in less than one business day.
The Cost of the Program
The CSD Call Center has been able to accomplish many benefits (see below) for only the cost of five (5) full time equivalent positions. In CSD’s case, these were experienced CSD staff capable of effectively assisting clients through a variety of applications. This combined with some minor data system upgrades made the Call Center a highly cost-effective solution to address multiple issues and provide a significantly better client experience. For these reasons, the Call Center has become an integral part of CSD’s operations. Other jurisdictions choosing to implement a similar program will also likely find that with a few highly trained call center staff their program can serve significantly more people for minimal additional cost.
Results/Success of the Program
Clients are now able to submit documentation, applications, and submit questions in the safety of their home 24/7 rather than have to meet in person with staff or call during business hours. This change has resulted in a significant increase in clients assisted. For example, from January-March 2022, CSD received 4501 applications for services. Within the same time frame, the Call Center received a total of 3804 calls from clients regarding their applications. The Call Center has interacted with 85% of applicants and provided direct support to the clients allowing these clients to complete their applications, receive approval, and obtain the assistance they need.
This Call Center team has also made a positive impact on CSD as a whole and the community overall. It has made a positive impact to the community overall by being readily available to applicants and making sure that their needs are being met. In fact, the service has been so successful, that, sometimes on a weekly basis, applicants outside of Maricopa County’s service area will contact the Call Center for assistance with applications for similar programs as CSD provides. Although the Call Center is only able to direct those calls to the appropriate jurisdiction, it believes this helps exemplify the effectiveness of this program. Finally, the Call Center is also creating a positive impact internally by assisting CSD case workers. CSD case workers processing applications for assistance have communicated to CSD management that the program has been very beneficial because the Call Center team is able to answer the client’s questions, leaving more time for the case workers to work on their cases and providing the services they need.
Overall, the Call Center has made a significant impact in the Community Services Division with their support and innovating thinking. Clients now have the opportunity to directly speak with the Call Center team regarding their applications instead of waiting for someone to reach out to them. By having this resource available, clients have a support system along their path to receiving services from Maricopa County.