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Getting aid might be as easy as dialing 211

A new hotline would connect callers to social service organizations that can help in times of need or crisis.

Published August 11, 2006

PORT RICHEY - Need help but don't know who to call?

Come Oct. 1, officials hope to have a 211 hotline in place that will put residents in touch with organizations that can help.

The 211 line will be a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week hotline that connects callers to the kind of social service help that 911 can't provide: access to organizations that provide food, clothing, shelter, medicine, money and even advice.

"What we're trying to do is to empower individuals to become their own advocates, to give them the information and resources to enable them to help themselves," said United Way of Pasco program director Karen King, whose job it is to get 211 up and running. "There's so many people who need help for just a window of time, and they fall through the cracks."

And during a crisis, such as a hurricane, 211 will be residents' phone link to emergency information, such as evacuation routes and shelters.

As it is now, Pasco is the third-largest county in the state without 211. It is also the only such county in the Tampa Bay area, according to the United Way of Pasco, which is working with county government to change that.

"We're kind of the hole in the doughnut of the area," said County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand.

If all goes as planned, organizers say, 211 will soon be a reality.

Next week, the state Agency for Health Care Administration will inspect the new call center at the United Way's Washington Street office, which awaits the agency's certification.

Then in September, the County Commission will approve next year's county government budget, which includes $150,000 for the 211 program.

That amount, along with the $120,000 the United Way of Pasco has already raised, as well as an additional $10,000 from other sources, will fund the program through October 2008.

Organizers hope the public and private financial support will continue once 211 is in place, and they hope to expand the program with state and federal dollars.

The first 211 hotlines were launched in 1997, and they now serve 55 percent of the country across 38 states.

Pasco County presents a particular challenge to the 211 system, United Way of Pasco president Susan Arnett said, because the county is served by four phone companies and three area codes: 352, 727 and 813.

But the hotline will do more than just help different slices of the county, she said.

"The concept of 211 will do more to bring a sense of community," Arnett said.

The United Way of Pasco has two help lines - (727) 845-4357 and (877) 828-8929 - staffed from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week.

Using its own funds, King said, the organization upgraded its phones and software for 211 when it comes online.

Two paid staffers will attend to the phones and another staffer will manage a database of organizations and contact numbers.

The facility will be staffed in Pasco five days a week, from 8 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. After hours and on weekends, calls will go to a Pinellas 211 call center.

Once organizers work out the logistics with all of the pay phone providers, callers will be able to call 211 for free from a pay phone, just as they can do with 911.

In times of crisis, the entire 211 operation will move to the Emergency Operations Center in New Port Richey and be staffed in the county 24 hours a day.

The United Way of Pasco is looking for volunteers to help out with the new 211 service. The agency also plans to launch a Web site with the database of organizations that can help residents in need.

[Last modified August 11, 2006, 06:39:54]

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