New 211 Info Line Answers the Call for Social Services

Times Staff Writer

Pregnant with her fourth child and working two part-time jobs, Adrienne Brooks returned home two years ago to find a notice tacked on the door saying the house was about to be sold.

The landlord couldn't repay his loans, so creditors were selling the Altadena house. Brooks and her husband, who worked the graveyard shift as a security guard, didn't know where to turn.

"I was pregnant, and I was scared," recalled Brooks, 37.

She eventually found an emergency hotline to call for housing help, and an operator at the nonprofit Info Line of Los Angeles "reassured me, gave me comfort and discussed alternatives."

Those first few days were nerve-racking, she said, but the family soon moved into another home nearby.

Beginning July 1, ordeals like the one faced by Brooks may become easier to cope with as Southern California counties roll out a long-delayed phone number -- 211 -- that can be called with urgent questions such as where to find affordable child or elder care, how to escape domestic violence or where to get help with housing.

"The 211 service will make it easier for the public to get access to the help they need," said Maribel Marin, executive director of San Gabriel-based Info Line, which will be answering calls in Los Angeles County.

Marin expects that the 400,000 calls Info Line gets each year will grow to 500,000 calls next year as people get used to the number and realize the range of services that are available.

Many of those calls, she said, will be ones that otherwise would have gone to the overloaded 911 emergency law enforcement network.

Ventura County began 211 service in February. Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Diego and Santa Barbara counties will join it as the only counties in California with the three-digit dialing. San Francisco and Contra Costa counties are expected to get on the system later this year, and others will soon follow.

"When the time comes to call for help, people won't need to fumble through a phone book and try to figure out which organization they should call," said Charles T. Watson, president of Interface Child Family Services in Oxnard, which runs Ventura County's 211 service.

Calls there are up 20%, he said, and 30% of those calling are using 211 instead of the old hotlines.

"The 211 number is a necessity," said Brooks, who has since finished a master's degree in human development and is in training to answer calls at Info Line.

"Many people have several different issues, like housing and food and maybe a sick child," she said. "We're going to be able to deal with all of it in one call."

Info Line's database, which it is planning to provide online, consists of about 4,000 public and private agencies that provide about 27,000 social services programs.

Five years ago, the Federal Communications Commission reserved the 211 phone number for community and referral services at the prodding of the Alliance of Information & Referral Services and United Way of America.

The idea was to create an easy-to-remember number for quick access at critical times to community-based and government social services agencies.

Most communities have a number of agencies that offer help, but each have separate hotlines and referral numbers to call.

Social services experts hope 211 will become as ingrained as 911 is for emergencies and 411 for directory assistance.

Marin said most people, especially family caregivers, calling Info Line's general lines or 10 toll-free hotlines have a variety of needs.

"They have to deal with so many agencies, they don't even know where to begin," she said. "Ours may not be the last call you make, but you will get all the information you need on where to go next."

One study, she said, showed that people make seven or eight calls just to get to the right department or agency. "People don't know that there's a different number to call for a dead animal than there is for a stray animal," she said.

Parts or all of 30 other states, covering about 40% of the nation's population, have the service. During last year's hurricanes in Florida, some counties with 211 service not only provided help but also identified unmet needs, including a lack of food in one area.

In Florida's Lee County, the system handled 60,000 calls in six days that normally would have gone to 911, freeing police and fire lines to handle emergency calls, said Matt Recommier, the county's 911 coordinator.

United Way and its affiliates help fund 211 calling, but bills in Congress to provide matching grants for the systems have stalled. Unlike the ratepayer-supported 911 system, 211 calling is funded by government grants, private donations and contracts for services.

Areas like Ventura County are small operations that often rely on donations. Ventura has a $360,000 budget and eight full-time positions to handle calls around the clock.

Info Line of Los Angeles, on the other hand, is putting together a $7-million budget for 105 employees to keep the lines open. Nearly all of the money comes from contracts with public and private agencies that provide services.

Funding issues and designations of which nonprofit firm will be the clearinghouse for a county or group of counties have been the main reasons for delays. The Southern California system, for instance, was expected to be in place more than a year ago.

A University of Texas cost-benefit study of 11 call centers nationwide last summer estimated that the net value of a national 211 system would approach $160 million in the first year and $1.1 billion over 10 years.

Savings would come in such areas as reduced 911 calling, reduced toll-free lines funded by government, decreased need for public assistance because of timely links to needed services and time saved by callers searching for the right agency to call.

The need for emergency shelter tops the list of service requests that Info Line receives, followed closely by calls about Social Security and other income benefits.

"If you lose your house, it cascades into other problems: health problems, loss of jobs and so forth," Marin said. "We can get you to a free medical clinic or get you a hot meal, but without a home, you can become part of our cycle of callers."

One aim of the 211 system is to address problems quickly to try to prevent that spiral effect, she said.

Although Info Line and Ventura's Interface act as clearinghouses for public and private agencies, they can handle many problems themselves, including some of the oddest requests.

For instance, a young, single father calling 211 in Ventura had no one to help him as he tried to cook a holiday ham for his children. "He was somebody caught up in a moment of distress," Watson said. "One of our people had time to go on the Internet and look up a recipe for him."

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