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211 is the 911 for social service assistance

I keep hearing about this new 211 information system. Is it up and running in our area? And what does it do? Can I get any kind of information on this line? I'm curious to know more about it. Can you help?

— Edith J. Medford.

Certainly, Edith. We're happy to help. Just consider us the Since You Asked telephonic information explanation center.

The new 211 system is a phone and Internet tool designed to make it easier for people to find the help they need from social service agencies in our 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.

Available from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, the free call from your mobile or land line can get you information on food, rent, utilities, dental, legal help — or just about anything you can think of, including tsunami relief.

The lowdown on what's available and where and eligibility requirements also can be accessed online by going to 211info.org, and tapping in your ZIP code. The 211 system is not a crisis line. That task is handled by the HelpLine at 541-779-HELP, which also answers 211 calls after hours, says Dee Anne Everson, executive director of United Way, which is providing the system with ACCESS Inc. and Community Works.

Launched last fall, 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, she says.

"They are now getting hundreds of calls every month," Everson says.

The vast majority of 211 users are ages 30 to 39, white, from Medford and living below the poverty line. The top three requests are for information pertaining to housing, utilities and food, she said, adding that other calls range from how to get help with dental work to where to get gasoline vouchers to queries about flu shots.

Calls to 211 are answered by a person in Portland who walks callers through the vast database of government agencies, nonprofits and faith-based resources available, from data collected and supplied from Jackson County.

"I think 211 is great because it helps short-circuit the goose chase a lot of people wind up in when they try to access assistance," Everson says.

The same information is on the Internet, but many of those living in poverty don't have access to the Web. However, if you'd like to search online, go to 211info.org, hit "search now," enter your ZIP code and your search term, or click one off the menu.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.