A new help line accessed by dialing 211 is helping thousands of D.C. residents with human services support such as food assistance and housing assistance.

The service is designed to help thousands of families in the District who live right on the edge, who need help paying bills or putting food on the table.

“Families may not need cash assistance full-time or for long periods of time. They may need something really short-term, as well as connection to services,” said Robert Matthews, director of D.C. Child and Family Services.

The “warm line” 211 launched as a pilot program in D.C., Kentucky, Oregon and South Carolina with funding from the Doris Duke Foundation. In some places, the number of families entering the foster care system has “dramatically decreased,” said Jooyeun Chang, the foundation’s director of child wellbeing.

The 211 program aims to give a way for people to ask for help without the fear that a social service agency might try to take children away from their family, Chang said.

“They’re unwilling to ask for the most basic help that they probably are eligible for because they fear systems,” she said.

“The system has been designed to only ask one question: Do I need to take your child out of your home? Do I need to separate you? I think that’s unacceptable,” she said. “We think the question that we need to be asking is, How can I help you? How can I be in service of you?”

The foundation announced last week that it gave D.C. $9 million to help expand the 211 service and provide community mentors to families that ask for help.

“Part of the resources that we’re going to provide D.C. is to further support that group of lived experts and other agency and community providers to really reimagine what D.C. can do for families at risk,” Chang said.

Calls to 211 are answered around the clock by the District’s 911 call center. Callers will not be asked about their immigration status, and the service is available in multiple languages.

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