Everyone knows you dial 911 in an emergency and 411 to get phone numbers. But in Los Angeles and many other counties across the nation, you can dial 211 for help with basic needs like food and shelter.
In the past few months the number of those calls has gone up dramatically, especially from families facing foreclosure or eviction, says Yolanda Villasenor. She's a community resources adviser who takes calls at Los Angeles' 211, where she has been listening to the voices of L.A.'s poor for 14 years.
"I recently received a call from a woman, a single mother," says Villasenor. "Her hours were cut so now she's only working part time, and she's in danger of foreclosing. And she's contacted her bank and her bank wouldn't help her."
But Villasenor did. She put her in touch with a nonprofit organization that gives free counseling to people with mortgage problems. It's one of 28,000 public and private service providers in the 211 database. But for the newly desperate, says Villasenor, dealing with social service agencies takes some getting used to.
"They've always been in control of their lives," she says, "and [when] you don't have control, there's a panic. "
Each county's 211 operation is a little different. Some rely almost entirely on donations; some are staffed by volunteers. In Los Angeles, the 211 system is run by the county with additional funding from the state tobacco tax and the United Way.
Before any of the employees start answering the phones, they undergo up to two months of training — all the better to help them handle the increased workload, says Maribel Marin, the executive director of Los Angeles County's 211 service.
"We have routinely gotten over 400,000 calls a year," Marin says. "This year we're very likely to break 500,000."
Sometimes that means that you have to tell the person on the other end of the phone that you just can't help him, says Brian Anaya, "because either places are out of food, or the shelter can't accommodate a women ... with five children."
Anaya says turning someone down is the toughest part of his job, and as he and his colleagues scramble to keep up with the needs of the suddenly poor, there are still the calls from those who have been struggling for years.
"I spoke to somebody who'd been out in the street for 20 years," Anaya says. So he probed, asked the man questions, tried to assess his needs. The story he heard was "heartbreaking," says Anaya. It "was about love. He met a woman, fell in love with her, she broke his heart and he felt like he wasn't good enough for anybody. So his call was him reaching out for the first time ... in 20 years."
And so it goes, 50, 100 even 200 times a day. Every conversation includes some version of these questions: "May I ask you, is this the first time you're calling our 211 line? And how did you get our number?"
Even though 211 is something that most people have never heard of, Marin isn't particularly keen on spreading the word just now.
"It would require a doubling of our capacity, so going from 500,000 calls to a million calls — we need to work up to that," she says.
She says that maybe in a more few years, they'll be close to meeting the need.