211: Digits for Everything Else

Times Staff Writer

In an effort to reduce unnecessary 911 calls and help link residents to health and social services, Los Angeles County announced Tuesday the creation of a three-digit telephone number -- 211 -- to refer callers to assistance such as homeless shelters and medical clinics.

Operators answering the toll-free number can provide help in more than 140 languages and put callers in touch with 4,000 agencies and county departments, officials said at a news conference held to publicize the number.

Until now, the county had 10 toll-free numbers for such services as reporting elder abuse, finding parenting resources and searching for work. But those lines have been replaced by 211, which also will include referrals to programs focused on welfare, hunger and foster care.

"Ultimately, everyone, no matter where they are, will know how to call and what to call," Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke said.

The initiative is part of a regional push to better connect residents with social services while also reducing non-emergency calls to swamped 911 lines. Ventura County opened its 211 line in February. Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties began this month.

Los Angeles County's service, which started Friday, is expected to receive about 450,000 calls in its first year but can handle more than twice that number, officials said.

"We're open 24/7, so there's never a time when you can't call 211," said Maribel Marin, executive director of 211 LA County, the agency that operates the service.

Officials warned that phones that prevent access to some three-digit numbers ending in -11 may also block 211. The number will not be accessible to cellphone users until Jan. 1. Until then, they must call 1-800-339-6993 to reach the service.

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