Texts connect needy to local services

211info adds another way for people to get rent, food assistance

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter




Ways to Get the 211

Call 211 from any phone.

Go online to 211info.org.

Text your ZIP code to 898211.

Reasons to Get the 211

Need help with rent or utility bills.

Need low-cost health care.

Need food.

Need a safe place to live.

Need parenting support.

Referrals to rent assistance programs, food pantries and low-cost medical clinics are now only a text message away.

For years, 211info has connected people throughout Oregon and in Clark and Skamania counties with social service programs in their communities. In July, 211info went mobile.

"They can text us and get the same basic service, just in a format that's more convenient," said Deborah Willoughby, Clark County outreach specialist for 211info.

211info was launched in the Portland metro area in 2004. Two years later, the program expanded to include Southwest Washington. Now, the Portland-based call center covers the entire state of Oregon.

Accessing 211info services is simple.

People in need of social services can call 211 from cellphones and land lines. Using the caller's ZIP code and some basic demographic information, the operator scans the database of more than 5,000 programs and provides information about the closest and most appropriate resources.

The resources include programs operated by nonprofits, faith-based organizations and state and local governments. The database of programs — which includes rent assistance, shelter, food pantries, energy assistance, dental care, health clinics, transitional housing and more — is also available online at 211info.

And, as of this summer, 211info services are available via text message. Those in need of services text their ZIP code to 898211. From there, an operator will text

back, ask some basic questions, and connect the person with the resources they need -- just as they would via phone.

"It's an interesting dynamic," said Matt Kinshella, 211info communications director. "People view it as a conversational medium. It's not just an information-exchange medium."

Kinshella hopes teenagers and young adults will embrace the new option for accessing 211info.

During the most recent fiscal year (July 2011 to June 2012), 211info answered 7,590 calls from Clark County residents. Only 5 percent of the callers were younger than 20.

Willoughby said many of the teen callers she's encountered are seeking health-related services or looking for resources after leaving domestic violence situations. They call looking for places to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases or inquiring about pregnancy and parenting services, she said.

Many times, Willoughby said, they have questions they're embarrassed to discuss with their physicians or are afraid their parents will find out.

In general, people call 211info because they don't know where to turn for help. In addition, navigating the services can be daunting; each agency and program has different eligibility requirements and application processes, Willoughby said.

"The phone book doesn't really do it anymore," she said.

211info is funded by local governments, grants and the United Way of the Columbia-Willamette. This calendar year, Clark County's department of community services contributed $34,000 toward the program's operating costs, Willoughby said.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health;http://facebook.com/reporterharshman;marissa.harshman@columbian.com.