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[January 21, 2013]
Social-service help only 3 digits away
Jan 21, 2013 (The Columbus Dispatch - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Dialing only three digits will put most Ohioans in touch with a wide variety of public services.
"Like 411 can get you numbers for businesses and people in the phone book, 211 will connect you to job and family services," said David Weaver, a Westerville psychologist.
Mental-health services are among the many types of assistance that local 211 call centers can direct people to. Weaver said he has used the free, 24-hour service himself and also told patients about it to help them find appropriate agencies.
Call-center operators also can link people with human-services agencies, food and shelter providers, child-care centers, senior-citizen services and natural-disaster relief. People who are looking for volunteer opportunities also can find them through 211.
Operators consult a database of the Ohio Alliance of Information and Referral Systems to connect callers to the proper agency. The Federal Communications Commission approved 211 as a social-service number in 2000, said Marilee Chinnici-Zuercher, the CEO and president of HandsOn Central Ohio, which operates the local 211 call center.
More than 8.6 million Ohio residents now have access. That is about 82 percent of the state's population, Chinnici-Zuercher said.
The state's centers received 1,347,596 calls in 2011, the most-recent year for which data are available, putting Ohio third nationally behind Texas and New York in call volume.
The service relies on local funding, and the model for each organization is different. Chinnici-Zuercher said HandsOn Central Ohio's money comes from a combination of sources, including the city of Columbus, Franklin County Job and Family Services, the county's ADAMH board, the United Way of Central Ohio and various community foundations. The budget for the fiscal year that runs through June 30 is about $1.2 million.
The sour economy increased both the number of people using 211 and the type of services they need, Chinnici-Zuercher said.
"What we're seeing is a profile change in those using 211 in Ohio," she said, with people seeking more information on job and family services.
A key benefit of 211, proponents say, is that it reduces the volume of inappropriate calls to emergency numbers such as 911.
The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio exempted cellphone companies from having to provide access to 211, but many have implemented it, including Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.
Callers in areas without a 211 affiliate receive a message that the service is not available in their area, according to the website 211Ohio.net.
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