Apparent drug addicts, dealers and other street people are drawn to the abandoned building in the 1100 block of 16th Street NE in the Trinidad area like flies to honey. Recently, Brian Roberts called to report it.
He didn't dial 911, a move made by many District residents who don't know any better. Instead, Roberts, staff director of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 5B, dialed 8-DC-HELP, the city service hot line that promises to put residents in touch with someone who will help cut through the government bureaucracy to solve a nonemergency problem. Within a day, Roberts received a call from a Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs official who told him an inspector would visit the building and assess what could be done.
"You can locate an accountable official through DC-HELP," Roberts said. "It keeps you from having to call around and get switched to 400 different people."
Since its inception nearly two years ago, the hot line has been serving residents who have a problem to report -- an abandoned refrigerator, say, or trash piling up -- that does not require an immediate response from the police, fire department or an ambulance.
Unfortunately, officials said recently, not enough people know about the 24-hour service. It was intended to keep residents with nonemergency problems from clogging up the 911 emergency system, but roughly half of the calls onto emergency lines continue to be nonemergencies, officials say.
People who have used the hot line say that, for the most part, they were satisfied. They complain, though, that sometimes it takes longer than the promised 48 hours for them to hear from city workers. In one case, a caller said she never heard from anyone. Patricia Mathews, who works with Roberts, said that she has been trying for a month to get trash removed from her area and that it took just as long to get five abandoned cars removed.
Joseph Yeldell, director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness, which administers the hot line, acknowledged that in some cases agency officials are slow to respond. He said that in June and July, for instance, the city ran out of space to park abandoned and towed cars.
But Yeldell pointed out that the helpline's job is to get the ball rolling. How fast it moves afterward depends on the agencies to which the requests for service are sent. If an official or agency persists in responding slowly or not at all for service requests, "then we go to the agency head and say, 'Hey, what's going on?' " Yeldell said.
"The agencies are very much aware that the mayor monitors what goes on with this every month" through reports that detail the helpline's performance, Yeldell said.
According to the Crime Control Institute, a nonprofit group that has researched alternatives to 911 emergency systems, few cities have as sophisticated a helpline as the District's, which is computerized.
In the past six months, officials in New York, Los Angeles and a dozen other cities have contacted Yeldell's office for information about the helpline.
From Jan. 1, 1986, to Oct. 31, 1987, the hot line generated 24,364 cases. Of those, 15,270 have been resolved, 5,114 are awaiting additional action and 3,980 are pending. The helpline operators have taken many more calls, but the vast majority of them are requests for information that do not require the opening of a case. In August, for instance, 32,000 calls came in. From those, 4,000 cases were opened.
"I used it several times over the winter months," said O.V. Johnson, who heads ANC 8D in the Washington Highlands area of Southwest. "I've used it for individuals who need help such as trying to find shelter."
When callers reach the hot line operators and make a request for service, they are given a case number and the name of an official who will be responsible for getting the problem solved.
Callers are told they will hear from that official within 48 hours and from that point, in most cases, the caller's problem can be solved in about five days, Yeldell said.
Housing inspection cases account for more than 30 percent of the load, followed by bulk collections, tree maintenance, abandoned cars and alley cleaning. During the winter, 40 percent of the calls are for snow removal.
Sometimes the hot line will receive a call that really is an emergency. In those cases, the call is transferred to 911 operators.
In time, Yeldell predicted, people will wean themselves from 911 and take advantage of the helpline.
"We know it's very difficult to gravitate to a new system," he said. "It took years and years to get people used to 911."