L.A. County's Desperate Have a New Option

Times Staff Writer

A call rings in to Shirl Rachal's phone console.

A young woman tells of her plight: She and her 6-year-old daughter have no place to spend the night. "My sister don't want us no more," the woman says.

On the other side of the room, Carolyn Stubblefield picks up an incoming call.

"My son has a alcohol-drug problem," an older woman laments. "He has a short fuse, a real anger problem. He had an outburst this morning and threw his computer monitor and hit a window. We're really at wit's end -- other than call the police."

And nearby, Miguel Serrano presses a button on his console.

"I got a family of nine," a woman tells him. "Two adults and seven children, all under age 18. They need shoes, clothing and food."

In a sense, with each call he takes, Serrano hears echoes of his own past. "I came from a tough family," he said. "We were a big family. There were 14 of us, and sometimes we had no food in the home. You have to have the heart to help these people."

The litany of woes issuing from Los Angeles County's populace flows without letup through the sunlit office cubicles in San Gabriel where Serrano and colleagues try to find solutions.

As resource advisors for the new Call 211 L.A. County information and referral service, they are uniquely knowledgeable about the boggling patchwork of public and private assistance available. They are uniquely knowledgeable, too, about the gaps in it, such as the dearth of emergency housing.

The countywide 211 service, which operates around the clock, seven days a week, began July 1 as a simpler, more easily remembered way for people to connect with various social services. County officials hope also that it will lower the volume of nonemergency calls to the overburdened 911 emergency system.

With its three-digit dialing code, Call 211 replaces a service called Info Line of Los Angeles, which consisted of eight assistance phone lines in various parts of the county. It also connects with 10 other information lines for specialized services dealing with such matters as elder abuse, unwanted newborns and employment opportunities.

Cellphones cannot connect with the 211 dialing code, though county officials hope to have that service in place by year's end. Similarly, certain businesses' internal phone systems don't allow connections with 211. For both categories of phone users, the service is available at (800) 339-6993.

Call 211 offers services directly in English and Spanish and, through a nationwide translation service, in more than 140 other languages. Its 65 advisors can instantly access a continuously updated computer database of 4,000 human service agencies and more than 28,000 widely varying programs, including those involving health screening, building code enforcement, animal services and anatomical donations.

In its first two weeks of operation, the service logged 4,000 more calls in English and Spanish than Info Line had received during the same period last year. It was an increase of nearly 60%, according to Maribel Marin, executive director of Call 211 L.A. County, the nonprofit organization that runs the program. Marin said the service is on track to record 450,000 calls a year, compared with about 350,000 logged annually by Info Line.

The goal, said Peter Talavera, 211 director of programs and services, is to make people "as familiar with 211 as they are with 911 and 411," the phone codes for emergencies and directory assistance.

Soft rock music burbles in the background at 211's office on Las Tunas Drive. The atmosphere is one of calm efficiency, in distinct contrast to the distress that besets many who call.

Thirty-year-old Miguel Serrano deals exclusively with callers in need of food, directing them toward soup kitchens and free food banks. His cubicle is decorated with religious cards and photographs of his two daughters, ages 2 and 9 months.

The telephone system automatically gives Serrano and his colleagues a one-minute break between calls to clear their computer screens and prepare for the next inquiry; during these intermissions, he spoke of his passion for his work.

"I've been here five years and would not change jobs," he said. "I could do this work till I retire."

Serrano, a veteran of Info Line, said that because there are many food banks and soup kitchens in the county, he usually is able to get callers some kind of help.

That's not true for Rachal. The 41-year-old mother of three handles primarily calls for emergency housing, which, like all housing in L.A. County, is hard to come by.

"It's difficult because a lot of times you can't find shelter -- and you've got a mom in tears on the phone with four, five, eight kids," she said between calls in her cubicle, which is adorned with tiny ceramic angels and photographs of her husband and children. "And the older the children, the harder it is. Nobody wants teenagers, especially teenage males."

Each morning Rachal surveys the 18 shelters on 211's master list to learn how many beds are available. This morning nearly 60 were, but the number was deceptive.

Some are open only to men or only to women. Some are not open to drinkers or drug-users. Some are not available to families. None is open to single men who have children with them. Some stop accepting clients for the day before noon.

Often the last resort is to find an agency that will issue hotel vouchers on the spur of the moment.

The county's size -- at 4,084 square miles, it is nearly half as large as New Jersey -- often is an obstacle in itself to those without transportation. For example, the woman with the young daughter found herself shelterless in the Brentwood area, and the only place Rachal could find for her was the Union Rescue Mission on skid row.

"You have to get to downtown Los Angeles," Rachal told her.

"Without any tokens or money?" the woman asked.

Rachal put her on hold and consulted her computer. The closest source of free bus tokens appeared to be at a Salvation Army Center in Hollywood, a long way from Brentwood. "Oh, no," she murmured. "They closed at noon. And they're only open on Tuesdays."

The best Rachal could do was suggest that the woman go the next morning to the Watts Labor Community Action Committee Homeless Assistance Center on 108th Street. "Make sure you get there tomorrow before 11 a.m.," she instructed. "And make sure you have all your papers."

Often Rachal and her colleagues must draw out from callers what their real needs are. Carolyn Stubblefield took a call from an elderly woman who asked where she could file an application for general relief assistance. On further questioning, it turned out the woman was homeless and had been unable to find shelter.

"They send me here, send me there. All full," the woman said. "All the shelters, they are full. This is not the first time I call you. This the sixth or seventh time. Not even a place, for last three weeks."

As Stubblefield called a Salvation Army Center for free bus tokens so the woman could get to an agency that might be able to help her, the woman hung up. Stubblefield sank back in her chair and lifted her palms in frustration. "We do get chronic folks going through the system," she said.

For 211's resource advisors, their calm and reassuring voices notwithstanding, daily exposure to the hardships of others can be wearing.

"Just hearing what people are going through -- young people with all kinds of ailments and disabilities, people who are 35 and sound like they're 70 -- is painful," Rachal said.

"I pray a lot," she added. "I try not to take too much home with me. But sometimes I have to put callers on hold and kind of cry with them.

"Then you have to take a moment to catch your breath, and get back on the line."

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So Many Requests

These are the categories of the most frequent calls to Info Line*, which preceded the 211 phone bank, during its last year of operation. Calls in these categories can now go to 211.

* Emergency shelter 45,651

* Income maintenance 38,099

* Protective services 22,913

* Food 18,889

* Counseling 16,752

* Tax assistance 15,607

* Legal assistance 14,911

* Employment 14,186

* Information services 12,458

* Subsidized housing 9,756

* Substance abuse 8,379

* Utility assistance 8,014

* Housing information 6,550

* Hospitals/clinics 5,994

* Landlord/tenant 5,100

* Parenting 4,020

* Law enforcement 3,771

* Other financial assistance 3,695

* Material resources 3,564

*July 2004 to July 2005

Source: 211 L.A. County

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