When times are tough, when Google doesn’t have all the answers, when an emergency arises — who do you call? Well, if it isn’t the 9-1-1 type emergency, you might be searching for 2-1-1, a simple three-digit number that, when dialed, will connect you with a trained information referral specialist who can help you find the right services for needs as basic as shelter and food, to childcare referrals or who to call to learn at what temperature you should cook your holiday turkey (which may have been picked up at one of the local food banks). Alaska 2-1-1 can connect Alaskans to an ever-growing network of 2,761 organizations across the state — 568 in Southeast Alaska.
Dialing 2-1-1 will get an Alaskan (or people across the country through related programs) connected to a real, live person Mondays through Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; outside those hours there are directions to reach emergency shelters or there is an option to leave a message to be contacted by a specialist during office hours.
What is a 2-1-1 call like?
Director Karen Bitzer said a caller might dial in with one question but it might be discerned that the caller needs access to more services, or a caller might have a string of questions, requiring the specialist to help talk things through to figure out where to start.
Alaska 2-1-1 has a website as well as an 800-number, she said “We get a lot of hits on the website... But it’s better when you can talk to someone, hear somebody’s voice.”
Alaska 2-1-1 uses the Language Line to extend services to people who speak any of more than 170 languages. It’s a service primarily used by police stations, but it serves Alaska 2-1-1 well.
When should I dial 2-1-1?
If it’s not a 9-1-1 emergency, 2-1-1 is a great option for finding services for anything from housing to food banks to legal services — with so many partners across the state and staff trained to help solve problems, there are too many services to list here. The top three needs of callers are basic needs, employment and income boosts, and physical or mental health needs.
2-1-1 is also a number that can be called in place of 9-1-1 in the wake of an emergency. For example, after the Gastineau Apartments fire, a displaced resident could call 2-1-1 to figure out where to go for shelter, how to get food, or what steps to take next.
“We do disaster response as well, we work with the Municipality of Anchorage and the State of Alaska to help when they need a single point, a single number to call for information. That’s really helpful... where there’s a 2-1-1, calls can be diverted there from a 9-1-1, so if it weren’t an emergency call the 9-1-1 (operator) could say “Call 2-1-1” and typically it’s for shelter, “Where do I go? Can I take my dog? Where do I take my dog?” and such.” United Way of Anchorage Vice President of Community Engagement and Director of Volunteer Center Sue Brogan said.
The Anchorage-based statewide service has been serving Alaska since 2007 and has fielded more than 86,000 calls and provided more than 101,000 referrals. Bitzer said specialists don’t ask many demographic questions aside from zip code for location and age to determine if a person may seek certain senior services.
“We want to give the referral back to the closest service to where people live.” Bitzer said.
The Alaska Mental Health Trust, Alaska Housing Finance and other health and social services agencies and organizations use Alaska 2-1-1 as a single point of access. In Southeast Alaska, the top referral organizations and agencies in 2012 were the State’s Department of Public Assistance, Alaska Housing Fincance Corporation, Alaska Legal Services, Salvation Army, Southeast Alaska Independent Living and SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium. 2-1-1 calls in Southeast increased 12 percent from 2011 to 2012, though Southeast calls make up only 3 percent of calls statewide. Anchorage makes up 76 percent of calls and referrals.
Should I really dial 2-1-1?
2-1-1 is a service for anyone in the state. United Way of Southeast Alaska President and CEO Wayne Stevens said many small businesses and employers are unable to offer an employee assistance program and suggested employers could suggest dialing 2-1-1. Bitzer said 2-1-1 calls range from the basic and most common calls to questions about tax prep assistance, summer food programs and farmers markets. If someone calls to ask about how to cook that holiday turkey, Bitzer said, they may be referred to the Cooperative Extension Service. The staff at Alaska 2-1-1 are trained and the center is staffed and ready to serve the whole state, Bitzer and Brogan assured. They update their database of services at least once a year and the system is flexible to account for seasonal needs and programming or emergency relief.
Where can I take my pet reptile in an emergency?
Alaska 2-1-1 has the answer to that question, too.
For more information on Alaska 2-1-1, visit their website at alaska211.org and if you need assistance, simply dial 2-1-1.
• Contact Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.