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211 information hotline launched on Long Island

Long Island is getting a free, 2-1-1 telephone

Long Island is getting a free, 2-1-1 telephone referral helpline that will connect residents to wide range of health and human services. Credit: Newsday File, 2009 / Gordon M. Grant

Want to know how to avoid foreclosure, get disaster assistance or find a mental health counseling service?

Long Island's new 211 hotline, which launched in Nassau and Suffolk Friday, is designed to provide residents with a range of social services and emergency information.

A partnership between United Way of Long Island and the Middle Country Public Library, it operates from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.

"If the neighbor has a dog barking [and] you don't know what to do," the hotline can help, said Theresa Regnante, the president of United Way of Long Island.

Dialing 211 - or 888-774-7633 from some phones - will connect Long Islanders with a United Way call center. The group will use a community resource database kept by the Middle Country Public Library to find answers or direct callers to the right agency. "This is really an overlay" of existing services, Regnante said.

The call center, which serves Westchester and Putnam counties and parts of upstate New York, already receives about 250 calls a day. That number can exceed 1,000 during emergencies, said Naomi Adler, the president of United Way of Westchester and Putnam.

A pilot grant from the state - about $900,000 over three years - covered most of the setup costs. Nassau and Suffolk also chipped in a small amount.

Officials say their current funding will last until August. They hope part of a proposed $3.2-million fund for the hotline in the next state budget will come to Long Island. If that fails, United Way will likely pursue a federal earmark and donations from other nonprofits.

United Way has gotten questions from people seeking help for decades. On Long Island, most of those calls have been answered by Elizabeth Eberhardt, who's worked at the local chapter for 33 years.

She said she fields around 2,000 calls a year, many of them wanting help finding counseling or dealing with substance abuse. "Most of the time, it's a family that's never had to reach out before," she said. "They don't know where to turn."

At Friday's launch, Eberhardt said she's glad callers will be able to get answers more quickly now. "The value of a call center is that they have six, eight, 10 others," she said. "A lot more people can be served."

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