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OK, so, you dial 911 in an emergency, and 411 to get phone numbers. In Los Angeles and many other places, you can dial 211 for help with basic needs like food and shelter. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports from here that in the past few months, the number of those calls has gone up dramatically.

(Soundbite of telephone call)

Ms. YOLANDA VILLASENOR (Community Resources Adviser): (Speaking Spanish)

INA JAFFE: Yolanda Villasenor has been listening to the voices of the poor for 14 years. They call 211 because they're hungry, or the power's been cut off, or they're living in their car. They call to report child abuse, elder abuse, or the welfare check that never showed up. The callers' identities are kept confidential, that's the reason you won't hear any of them in this story. But, Villasenor says that in recent months, the kinds of callers she talks to have changed.

Ms. VILLASENOR: We're getting calls - people that have been foreclosed. People that are in danger of being foreclosed. I recently received a call from a woman, single, mother. 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. Sorry, you're going to have to make the payment.

JAFFE: So, Villasenor put her in touch with a nonprofit organization that helps people with mortgage problems, for free. It's one of 28,000 public and private service providers in the 211 database. But Villasenor says for the newly desperate, dealing with social service agencies takes some getting used to.

Ms. VILLASENOR: They've always been in control of their lives, and you don't have that control. There's a panic. Yeah, there's a panic.

JAFFE: Each county's 211 operation is a little different. Some rely almost entirely on donations, some are staffed by volunteers. But here, the 211 system is run by L.A. County, with additional funding from the state tobacco tax and the United Way. Before any of the employees start answering the phones, they undergo nearly two months of training, all the better to help them handle the increased workload, says Maribel Marin, the executive director of L.A. County's 211 service.

Ms. MARIBEL MARIN (Executive Director, L. A. County's 211 service): We have routinely gotten over 400,000 calls a year. This year we're very likely to break 500,000.

JAFFE: That means more demand on the service providers in the 211 data base. Brian Anaya says one of the hardest parts of his job is telling the person on the other end of the phone that he just can't help them.

Mr. BRIAN ANAYA (Service Provider, 211 Data Base): Because, either their places are out of food, or the shelter just can't accommodate for a women with five children.

JAFFE: And as Anaya his colleagues scramble to keep up with the needs of the suddenly poor, there are still the calls from those who've been struggling for years.

Mr. ANAYA: I spoke to somebody who'd been out in the street for 20 years. We kind of probed and asked him questions, and we got into the situation, their whole situation 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.

JAFFE: In 20 years?

Mr. ANAYA: In 20 years, that's right.

JAFFE: And so it goes, 50, or a 100, even 200 times a day. And every conversation includes a version of this question asked by Yolanda Villasenor.

Ms. VILLASENOR: Is this the first time you are calling our 211 information line, sir? And how did you get our number?

JAFFE: Because 211 is something that most people have never heard of, but Executive Director Maribel Marin isn't particularly keen on spreading the word just now.

Ms. MARIN: It would require a doubling of our capacity, essentially. So, going from 500,000 calls to a million calls you know, we need to work up to that.

JAFFE: Maybe in a more few years, she says, they'll be close to meeting the need. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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