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By Karen Zamel
East Palo Alto Today
Posted January 21, 2011

Finding essential and sometimes life-saving services can be daunting during trying times, especially for people who need those services the most.  Often, the toughest part for those in need is knowing where to start.  When San Mateo County is officially added to the United Way’s information and referral network, residents in all 12 Bay Area counties will be able to dial 211 and be connected with health and human services 24/7.  

Call center operators, available around-the-clock at the 211 hotline number, will have the ability to give callers information that will enable them to find food, housing, health care, senior services, child care, legal aid and much more.  According to Anne Wilson, the CEO of the United Way of the Bay Area, the 211 resource is designed to help residents navigate the maze of government and non-profit agencies that serve their counties. Wilson noted that people, without 211 now, often call several agencies before getting through to the correct service, while many give up before finding the help they need. 
While the service is also available online at http://211bayarea.org, United Way representatives say that the real value of the service is that it gives callers the ability to speak with someone who is trained to help them assess and identify the best possible resources available.

“If you’re in any type of crisis, you can reach a person who can help you.  If you’re hungry, received an eviction notice,…reaching a live, caring person who can listen is sometimes the most important place to start.  Our call center team is highly training in how to ask the right questions, assess the situation and help,” said Maria Stokes, spokesperson for United Way of the Bay Area.  She noted that the service is confidential and that callers can get assistance in 150 different languages.

United Way initiated the Bay Area 211 project in 2006 with the County of San Francisco as the inaugural county.  At the time, the goal was to aggregate various other information and referral services and simplify access throughout the region.  Now, with the Congressional designation of 211 as the community information number, the coordination of many different agencies, and a planned five-year county-by-county roll out, the goal of having a Bay Area 211 has become a reality.  In San Mateo County, the last county on the United Way’s Bay Area to-do list, the 211 project was launched in Beta in October and is publicly available now.  Currently, United Way funds or operates the service for all 12 counties.

The Bay Area 211 project will be officially launched in San Mateo County in early February. With the program’s geographic expansion and the struggling economy, the volume of calls to the 211 call center is increasing rapidly. While 2010 statistics are not yet available, call volume skyrocketed by 59% from 2008 to 2009.  More than 50% of those calls were from residents needing shelter or food.

Since the need is so great, United Way is working to make the 211 hotline service available state-wide.  Currently the service is up and running for 27 out of 58 counties in California.


To contact Karen Zamel, email her at kzamel@epatoday.org



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