Three simple numbers on a keypad – 2-1-1 – can make a monumental difference in a life. Particularly as other numbers – those on a thermometer – drop toward single digits.

Crisis Services of North Alabama, which operates the ‘round-the-clock 2-1-1 hotline, helps the homeless and others in need as the temperature reaches dangerously low levels.

It also helps alleviate the strain on government resources in stressful times, saving taxpayer dollars and enabling manpower to be concentrated elsewhere.

We’re blessed to have 2-1-1 with their machinery in place and with their expertise when these challenges arise.”

The 2-1-1 program blankets six counties and, as program manager Jessica Rasche says, “there are 5,000 reasons you might call me.” They might range from helping an elderly person obtain a wheelchair to assisting in finding childcare. One of those reasons, right now, would be the frigid temperatures.

Operators at 2-1-1 can refer homeless – a majority of whom have phone access – to warming centers, traditional shelters and other services. Since many shelters have regulations in place (for instance, adult-only sleeping areas that might force a family to be split up), 2-1-1 can help find the best match. They might be referred to homeless agencies who can obtain temporary lodging at hotels and motels.

‘We are resource-rich’

“We’re very fortunate in Madison County. We are resource-rich,” says Jeffrey Birdwell, director of the Huntsville-Madison County Emergency Management Agency. “There are a lot of people out there who are willing to help, a lot of resources.”

Though it is an independent operation, 2-1-1 takes its cues from the Emergency Management Agency and is closely tied with VOAD – Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster – which is a coalition of groups that tackle the second-tier challenges after an incident.

Because of those groups, EMA and other government entities don’t need to become directly involved in housing and major assistance unless circumstances become extraordinary.

“We’re concerned about all of our residents, especially when severe weather hits,” said Mayor Tommy Battle. “But we’re blessed in Huntsville to have 2-1-1 and all the other volunteer organizations with the machinery in place with their expertise and their facilities so that we can devote our resources to the most critical needs when these challenges arise.”

For instance, public buildings such as schools are not opened as warming centers because of staffing, security and liability issues. Or simply because it wouldn’t be cost-effective.

However, the City’s first responders are trained and encouraged to assist in these cold-weather situations. They can transport homeless to shelters if needed. The City’s Shuttle service will transport homeless to shelters as well, free of charge.

Another crucial indirect measure of help from the City of Huntsville is the distribution of federal grant funds through its Community Development office, providing financial assistance to such groups as the North Alabama Coalition for the Homeless.

Not just for the homeless – or the cold

Many families and the elderly on limited income might be struggling with “sheltering in place,” trying to keep warm with insufficient heat to minimize their utility bills. (Huntsville Utilities has a Project Share program in conjunction with the Salvation Army, where customers can donate by adding to their utility bill and the money is used for bill assistance for the needy.)

Nor is the 2-1-1 service limited to cold-weather times. As Rasche says, “We’re a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week, 365-day-a-year service. We’re like ‘dial a social worker.’ You want to get a GED, you might need to find affordable housing, need to know about transportation or employment resources, on a daily basis we’re tracking all that in a database with non-profits.”

A 2-1-1 call specialist is trained in linking people with the local help they require.

A five-minute conversation will typically yield the information from a caller that enables 2-1-1 to make the proper connection. It may be for one of those 5,000 reasons Rasche referred to, or it may be because it’s 5 degrees outside. But a simple call can make a difference.