In the next year, Washington area residents who are looking for a food bank, help for an elderly parent or counseling in a family crisis will be able to turn to the Internet.
Organizers of a new Web site say that entering a Zip code and information about the problem will bring up a list of local organizations that offer the appropriate services.
The site is the beginning of what planners say will be a regional system to help residents negotiate the maze of social service and government agencies in the region's myriad jurisdictions.
Planners say their ultimate goal is a 24-hour regional "211" telephone hotline with trained operators who will connect callers to information and help. The hotline would replace scores of unconnected telephone referral services that they say confuse the public.
The hotline also would give area residents a simple, easy-to-remember way to deal with a crisis. For example, a Capitol Hill resident could find help for a suburban relative facing eviction without negotiating an unfamiliar bureaucracy or phone book.
Organizers say the system also would be invaluable in emergencies, such as a terrorist attack, by offering residents a coordinated way of getting information and advice.
Officials say that while they work out the details of a telephone system, they have opted to put a database of the information on the Web.
"Technology is not as good as the human touch," said Chuck Bean, chairman of the Greater Washington 2-1-1 Work Group, which is helping coordinate the project. "But, as the region figures out the structure of the 211 call centers, this is something we can do in the interim."
In the past five years, 211 hotlines have mushroomed across the United States. In 2000, United Way of America led the effort to persuade the Federal Communications Commission to set aside 211 for regional information and referral systems. The commission left it to the 50 states and the District to designate operators for their 211 services.
The FCC action "really gave us a huge momentum," said Kelly Levy, national director for 211 at Alexandria-based United Way of America.
There are 156 active 211 call centers reaching an estimated 119 million Americans. Thirteen of the centers operate statewide.
In 2002, a Brookings Institution report urged the creation of a 211 system in the Washington area, noting that the current information and referral network here is "disjointed, complex and haphazard."
"Residents would clearly benefit . . . from a system providing a single access point into the region's social services network," the report said.
If a regional 211 system had been in place on Sept. 11, 2001, the number could have been featured on newscasts and in other media for crisis response and recovery, the report said.
Designing a regionwide system here has been slower than in some other areas. After initially hoping to coordinate Virginia, Maryland and the District into one 211 system with one call center, planners have concluded that it would be too difficult logistically. Instead, they are now focusing on developing separate 211 systems in all three jurisdictions and then using technology to meld them so that each call center would have access to the same database of regional information.
"Trying to bend two states and the District into one system is just not in the cards," Bean said.
Each jurisdiction is taking a separate path toward a 211 system.
The District has a 24-hour 211 hotline -- adapted from an existing system with another number, 202-INFO-211 -- that connects callers to operators who refer them to government agencies and nonprofit community groups.
In Maryland, a pilot 211 system that will cover part of the state is expected to be up and running this year. It was set up as a result of a law, signed last year by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), that established a board to recommend ways to expand it and make it permanent.
In Northern Virginia, residents can call the statewide 800-230-6977, which automatically connects them to local social services agencies based on their telephone number. After-hours, calls go to CrisisLink, an Arlington crisis and information referral organization.
Organizers have struggled to convert it to a more coordinated 211 hotline for Northern Virginia, said Tylee Smith, manager of information referral programs for the Northern Virginia Regional Commission.
Last year, the heads of government human services agencies in Northern Virginia put together a 14-member task force to come up with a plan for a 211 system in Northern Virginia. The report is due in the fall. Any plan would have to be approved by each Northern Virginia jurisdiction.
Smith said another stumbling block is funding for start-up costs and the extra personnel that a highly publicized 24-hour 211 operation would need.
Kerrie Wilson, executive director of Reston Interfaith and a member of the Northern Virginia 211 task force, said that a unified 211 system would be very helpful to her organization.
"We get so many requests for information -- people looking for services that we may not have access to," Wilson said. With a 211 number, "you could say to someone, 'Gee, we're not able to help you, but if you call 211, they'll put you right in touch with what you need.' "