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By Helen Silvis of The Skanner News
Published: 16 June 2010

What's the 211?
No, that's not a misprint. You read it right -- 211. That's the number to call for help if you're struggling and you don't know where to turn for help. The 211 Helpline can offer referrals to agencies that help with anything from paying your electric bill to getting food stamps or housing.
More than 128,000 people called 211 last year, most of them having difficulties meeting basic needs. In the freezing, dark days of January, 16,000 people called. At 211, you might find resources you didn't even know existed.

 Call Center Specialist Nickcolynn Nixon  

"It's confidential. It's free. And we want to help you," says Matt Kinshella, the agencies communications go-to guy. "Our operators are really great at diagnosing the needs of the people who call and offering them information about the help they can get."
Last winter, for example, a woman called from East County looking for a way to get to a downtown women's shelter, because the shelter in Gresham was full. The 211 operator was able to send to her to a warming center that had just opened up near where she was.
"Instead of spending the night on the streets, she was able to go to that warming shelter," says Kinshella. "And it was one of the coldest nights of the year."
With unemployment still running high at 10.4 percent in Oregon and 9.1 percent in Washington, thousands of Northwest families are struggling. African Americans are among the hardest hit. Figures from the US Department of Labor for May show Black male unemployment is 17.1 percent. That's double the rate for White males. For Black women the rate is 12.4. Which means a lot of people struggling to pay rent, put food on the table and take care of their health.


Top 10 Reasons for Calling 211


Electric bill



Dental care

Low-cost housing

Income support

Tax preparation

Low-cost housing

Water Bill



The 211 Helpline operates in seven Oregon counties and four SW Washington counties. Funded by those counties, as well as by the city of Portland and United Way of the Columbia Willamette, this central referral system constantly updates its resource bank and efficiently gets people to the agencies that can help them. It's set to go statewide by 2013 -- thanks to grants from The Meyer Memorial Trust, The Oregon Community Fund, and the Collins Foundation.
Kinshella says the biggest demand is for help with energy bills. Help is out there, he said, even if it gets maxed out at times. Dental care is hard to come by, for example. Some types of calls may be quickly passed on to experts – for example when callers are suicidal or living with domestic violence. But most callers can get the information they need with just one call.
"Lots of people don't know what they are entitled to," Kinshella says. "One family were middle class, but then they lost a job and were running out of money. But they hadn't cashed in a 401K, so they thought they weren't able to get food stamps. But that wasn't true."
If you're one of those people who prefer to do it yourself, you can find information online at www.211info.org.

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