Shelter, food, and financial assistance were the top requests 211 operators received last year.

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2012 KIDS COUNT Data Book released in July, California fell to 41st out of 50 states in overall children’s well-being. When it comes to economic well-being, we’re 45th.

Children Now, a partner on the Data Book, reports that 36% of California’s children live in families where no parent has full-time, year-round employment – a 20% increase since 2008. The recession has taken its toll, and many of these families have turned to the safety net for the first time.

The Contra Costa Crisis Center, the organization implementing Contra Costa County’s 211 phone referral service linking people to community programs, reports that their operators continually field calls from frustrated callers whose needs far outweigh the services available. The most common requests from callers looking for services last year were for shelter or subsidized housing, rental and utility bill assistance, general financial assistance, and food pantry/food resources.

The safety net – the vital community services that address basic needs for shelter, food security, health care, and child and adult family safety – is being stretched as never before, at a time when local, state, and federal funds for safety net services are drying up. How can we strengthen the safety net now, and what will the array of safety net services look like in the future?

That’s the charge of Contra Costa’s Safety Net Initiative Task Force, a countywide effort that brings together leaders of county government, business, foundations, and nonprofit organizations to address this very problem. This group was formed a few years ago, after former Contra Costa County Administrator (and First 5 Commissioner) John Cullen approached local foundations to make sure they fully understood the impact of budget cuts and the recession on low-income families.

I participate on the Safety Net Task Force, which meets regularly to develop an action plan for reimagining and strengthening the safety net in our county.

Last month, we sponsored a daylong session with 100 additional community leaders to broaden the discussions about strengthening the safety net during this time of reduced funding and increased need. We discussed how to make the safety net more efficient, how to change the current system from funding-driven to family-driven, and how to change misperceptions about families who rely on the safety net.

This was the first of four planned sessions – the first opportunity for local leaders to be in the same room and acknowledge our role in finding a solution. Long-term, we know it will take significant policy changes to combat poverty, but strengthening and organizing our local efforts is a good start.

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