High demand for new social services tool

Users of the 211 can find info on many aid agencies

A new phone and Internet tool is making it easier for people to find the help they need from social service agencies in the region. Instead of having to pick their way through a bureaucratic tangle of help agencies, people can simply dial 211 and be directed to the right agency to meet their need.

Or they can go online to 211info.org, tap in their ZIP code, then search for food, rent, utilities, dental, legal help — or just about anything you can think of, including tsunami relief — and they can get the lowdown on what's available, where and whether they are eligible.

Launched on Sept. 1, the 211 system is getting more use every month, with 140 calls in August (before it was publicized), 249 in September and 363 in October, says Dee Anne Everson, executive director of United Way, which is providing the system with ACCESS Inc. and Community Works.

The vast majority of 211 users are ages 30 to 39, white, from Medford, and living below the poverty line, says Everson.

In October, the most popular calls were for help with rent and deposits, 13 percent; help with utilities, 9 percent; information on food stamps, 7 percent; help with dental work, 4 percent; locations of food pantries, 3 percent; and information on health clinics, 3 percent. The rest of the callers asked about everything from area agencies on aging to gasoline vouchers, flu shots, blankets, and the Women, Infants and Children program, among many other topics.

Calls to 211 are answered by a person who walks callers through the vast database of government agencies, nonprofits and faith-based resources available. The same information is on the Internet, but many of those living in poverty don't have access to the Web, says Dawn Burk of Community Works.

"(211) is absolutely necessary," she says. "The social services network can be very confusing, and we have a lot of people in crisis."

To search online, go to 211info.org, hit "search now," enter your ZIP code and your search term, or click one off the menu. Usually, several choices appear. When one is chosen, it provides the location, hours, requirements for eligibility, languages spoken and documentation required.

"211 is fantastic," says Everson. "There's already enough stress on people who need help. Until 211, they had to go to or call five or six places and often got told to go to another place, standing in line and using up bus tokens, and often it was a wild goose chase.

"Now, we can reduce a lot of stress for people who are deep in need. That's the great gift of it."

The 211 system is not a crisis line. That task is handled by the HelpLine at 541-779-HELP, says Burk.

The 211 line also will get calls from Oregon SafeNet, a nutrition, maternal and infant health line.

The total number of caller needs from phone, Web and SafeNet were 413 in August, 533 in September and 590 in October, for a total of 1,746, says Anna D'Amato of Community Works.

The top five agency referrals since July 1 are St. Vincent de Paul, 145; ACCESS, 131; Department of Human Services, 108; Salvation Army, 91, and La Clinica, 65.

Women make up 69 percent of users and males make up 31 percent. People in their 30s are the biggest demographic, with those in their 20s and 40s tied for second, followed by those in their 50s and 60s.

Medford residents made up two-thirds of users, followed by Ashland, Central Point and White City. About 92 percent of users are white. Of those classified as white, Hispanics make up 10 percent. Only 15 percent of users are above the poverty line, according to information from 211info.org.

A survey of users found that 50 percent got the help they needed. Of those unable to get help, 75 percent said it was because the agency was out of funds.

The top unmet needs are, in order, rent assistance, gas money, utility payments, fee and license assistance, and shelter.

The website's home page contains news updates about help for eye care, food for veterans, free cellphones for Medicaid or SNAP users, low-cost Internet and other programs.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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