To make it easier for District residents in crisis to get help, Mayor Anthony A. Williams announced that the city has activated a new hotline number, 211, to connect callers directly with someone who will provide them with social services information and referrals.

The new three-digit code is a shortened version of the old number, 202-INFO-211. That number connected callers to Answers, Please!, the Department of Human Services' 24-hour hotline that has been in operation since 1999. The new number also will go to the call center.

Williams said an advertising campaign to promote the number is expected to generate more callers.

"This is a symbol of how we are working to serve our citizens in simple, effective ways," he said.

Residents can call 211 to find out about services offered by government agencies and nonprofit, community-based organizations.

The process to bring 211 to the District has been years in the making. In July 2000, the Federal Communications Commission designated 211 as a nationwide community information and referral number. Each state decided which agency would receive the 211 designation; in the District, the Department of Human Services filed a petition with the D.C. Public Service Commission, said Chairman Agnes Yates.

Yates said the agency was the most deserving of the 211 code. The Department of Human Services, which administers programs for low-income residents, receives 48,000 hotline calls a year.

The District also garnered corporate support for the change. Verizon gave $300,000 for the new hotline and loaned several of its employees to assist with technical aspects of the change. Verizon, the city's Water and Sewer Authority, Washington Gas and Pepco will advertise the three-digit code in their customer bills.

On the fourth floor of Human Services' headquarters, Debra Minor, a community resource adviser who takes the calls, sat at her computer Tuesday with a headset on. The calls to the center include the heart-wrenching as well as quick questions about child care or after-school tutoring.

Sometimes, she said, "People just want to talk."

One caller, an elderly woman, said she needed help around the house. Minor typed and clicked her mouse, and soon she had the number for the Family Services Administration, a division of the department that runs a program called in-house support.

"Do you want me to connect you?" Minor asked in a pleasant, patient voice.

She put the caller through.