Suddenly on the skids

Suddenly on the skids (Robert Carter / For the Los Angeles Times)

If you're eating three meals today and have a roof over your head, you've probably never heard of the 211 service.

It's like 411 or 911, except you use it when you're in such financial distress that you don't have enough money for food or perhaps even for a place to live.

In this economic climate, those conditions can arise alarmingly quickly.

"We have households that six months ago made $70,000, $80,000," said Michael Flood, chief executive of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, "and then the bottom falls out."

This is a consumer guide for the nouveaux poor, individuals and families who suddenly find themselves in financial peril. A good place to start is the 211 referral services, available in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.

The L.A. version is available 24/7, including holidays.

"All day long we have people saying to us, 'I never thought this could happen to me,' " said 211 staffer Irene Aceves while taking calls on a recent afternoon at the L.A. operation's headquarters, a former bank in San Gabriel.

Denial is common. Michelle Vu took a call from a woman in Hollywood who had lost her job, leading to the eventual loss of her home. For the last four nights the woman had slept in her car.

"I told her about shelters where I could possibly find a place for her," Vu said. "She said she didn't want that because shelters are for people who are homeless."

For someone who needs help, it's important to make the call promptly. Competition for services is getting fierce.

Maribel Marin, executive director of L.A. County 211, said the number of calls the service receives each month has jumped from about 30,000 last year to just over 50,000 now. With more people in need, food banks are coming up short, housing organizations have years-long waiting lists and the wait for medical services grows longer. Even the annual Christmas toy charities are hurting.

"More average people, not on the street, are calling to get Christmas presents for the kids and a Christmas meal," said Maggie Hutchinson, who has taken calls for 21 years at 211 L.A. County and its predecessor that used an 800 number.

It's not all bad news at 211. There are victories.

One recent evening, Miguel Serrano called numerous shelters until he found one that would provide a voucher -- rare for that late in the day -- for a woman and her two children to stay the night. As Serrano gave the woman the details, he quietly pumped his fist in victory.

Serrano had stayed past his quitting time to complete the call. But as he packed up he was beaming.

"A call like that can make your day," he said.

This is merely an introduction to navigating the system.

"If you've been a low-income mother of five, you know all the agencies and the nonprofits where you can get help," said John Kim, director of the Healthy City project that is working on a consumer-friendly online guide to these resources.

"But if you just lost your home and your job, you're new to this world. You are looking around, saying, 'Where do I turn?' "