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County now linked to resource call center

Jackson County social services leaders are touting the arrival of 211info — a new information services hub designed to provide community members a direct route to health and human services updates, resource connections and referrals.

Simply by dialing 211, callers will be connected to call center specialists who are trained to direct them to available resources. They will provide free confidential assistance in directing them to the best source for an answer to their questions or issues, said Dee Anne Everson, executive director of United Way of Jackson County.

Operators still were working out a few bugs in the system Friday, but Everson said it was up and running. Originally, it wasn't expected to be available until September.

Similar to 911, the 211 system is available from most cellphones or landlines for free. Phone hours are Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., said Matt Kinschella, spokesman for 211.

A national public demand for a single, easy-to-remember phone number that would eliminate the maze of confusion and connect people to community services brought the 211 idea to fruition in 1980. In 2004, 211info came to the Portland metro area.

The community service is already available in Portland, Bend, Salem and about two-thirds of Oregon's counties. The goal is to bring 211 service to every Oregonian by 2013, Kinschella said.

"It is now in all 50 states and 21 counties in Oregon," said Everson, adding more than 80 percent of the state's population now has access to free 211info services.

The information available could range from news updates on the Japanese tsunami debris to where to go for free school supplies. Everson stressed that while the call center staffers provide referrals, they do not provide services themselves.

"If you have an emergency, call 911," Everson said. "If you have a domestic violence or mental health crisis, call Helpline (541-779-4357). But if you need information on how many shelter beds are available, or where to go for help with rent, or where do you go to pay your utilities, you can now call 211."

Jackson County's "soft launch" of the 211 line began Wednesday. Responding to a request from 211info agency relations coordinator Emily Berndt, Everson sent emails to about 200 United Way volunteers and others to see if they were able to access the database.

Not all calls were able to be connected to the center as in some instances phone companies still needed to link to the system, Kinschella said. Callers who needed to dial "9" before calling out seemed to be having the most difficulties.

The non-profit organization and its local partners, United Way, ACCESS and Community Works, will continue to fine tune the system before its full debut in September, Everson said.

In addition to phone calls and website access at 211info.org, people can subscribe to email alerts to keep up to date on the latest community service developments in their area, Kinschella said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.