211: A bridge over troubled waters is only useful if people can find it.

By Matt Kinshella of Portland, Oregon. Matt is the external relations coordinator at 211info - the local nonprofit that connects people in Oregon and Southwest Washington to the community resources they need.

Recently, a guest column penned by Portland resident Alan Moore outlined the programs available to people who are unemployed in Oregon. These programs, as Mr. Moore smartly pointed out, aren’t enough for the recently unemployed to kick their feet up and have a beer, but do fill some necessary holes while one is looking for work. Unfortunately, though, many unemployed Oregonians aren’t aware of the services available to them. That’s where a single, easy-to-remember phone number for referrals to unemployment programs, health insurance options, job training, food stamps, mortgage assistance and job search information comes in handy. Anyone can pick up the phone and dial 2-1-1.

In the worst economy since the Great Depression, Oregonians everywhere are struggling to put food on the table, keep the heat on and stay in their homes. Nonprofits and public agencies are ready to help, but when people reach out they get lost in a system that is fragmented and confusing.

2-1-1 cuts through the clutter and makes it easy for individuals, families and seniors to get the help they need. 2-1-1 is a vital resource that connects Oregonians with local services right in their own backyard.

Take a recent caller who was facing foreclosure - a Portland woman who was in dire financial stress because she has already given money to a scam artist who had promised her a way out. A few up-front monthly payments later and she was in a $3,000 hole with no solutions. Eventually, she learned about 2-1-1 and one of our call center specialists was able to refer her to free foreclosure counseling, but it is devastating to think this could have all been avoided.

Or how about a woman who called and very timidly asked about WIC, which her family qualified for? She and her husband had both lost their jobs in the previous four months. In addition to WIC, we asked if she had looked into SNAP (food stamps) – since people who qualify for one usually qualify for the other. She hesitated. She and her husband had a 401(k), and she thought they would have to cash out and exhaust the 401(k) before they could collect food stamps.

It’s not uncommon for people new to social services to have misconceptions that keep them from applying for what is perhaps the most accessible of all the basic forms of assistance. Gladly, we were able to give her this vital information.

My organization, 211info, is the nonprofit that answers the phone when someone dials 2-1-1. We also manage an online database that has more than 4,200 programs available to search at 211info.org.

Last month, more than half of our callers had recently lost their job or had a reduction in hours. The recession is not over by a long shot. More people need to know about the services available to them, because as Mr. Moore stated: “These programs help the entire state by keeping families participating in the Oregon economy.”

Best of luck to Mr. Moore, and the thousands of unemployed Oregonians, our thoughts are surely with you. The good news is there are people out there who can help. We just have to make sure these two groups get connected as quickly and seamlessly as possible.

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