While many feel that Alaska avoided the national economic crisis, the reality is that Alaskans have been increasingly hurting. Many Alaskans have never had to ask for help before. Some are embarrassed to suddenly have to ask. Most don’t know where to start, who to call, or what exactly to ask for. That’s where Alaska 2-1-1’s staff comes in.

By Michele Brown, President, United Way of Anchorage

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Winter has arrived in Alaska, and for many of us the dropping temperatures and decreased sunlight also come with increased spending: holiday travel, food and gifts, escalating utility bills. These costs make it difficult enough for most Alaskans to provide happy holidays for their families, but for those already feeling a financial pinch, this time of year comes with struggle and even despair.

Each winter, the free statewide information and referral system Alaska 2-1-1 receives a spike in calls from Alaskans desperately seeking relief for needs often taken for granted: food on the table, reliable transportation, enough money to pay essential bills, even a place to call home. In the winter season, Alaska 2-1-1 call specialists often direct Alaskans to food pantries, clothing drives and utilities assistance programs. In dire cases, callers are even connected to shelters and transitional housing options to keep them off the streets.

Alaska 2-1-1’s role in connecting Alaskans to help is critical to keeping so many families warm, fed and housed through our coldest season. But Alaska 2-1-1’s importance for Alaskans has quickly become even more vital year-round, as well.

In its first two full years of operation, Alaska 2-1-1 received nearly 20,000 calls. From the start of 2010 through August, Alaska 2-1-1 had already received nearly 15,000 calls. Awareness of Alaska 2-1-1 rising, but so is need around our state. While many feel that Alaska avoided the national economic crisis, the reality is that Alaskans have been increasingly hurting. Calls to Alaska 2-1-1 more than doubled from 2008 to 2009. In Anchorage/Southcentral, Alaska 2-1-1’s most populated call region, requests for emergency financial assistance went up 96% from 2008-2009. In the same period, food assistance was up 138%, shelter assistance was up 198%, and utility assistance was up 282%.

Many Alaskans have never had to ask for help before. Some are embarrassed to suddenly have to ask. Most don’t know where to start, who to call, or what exactly to ask for. That’s where Alaska 2-1-1’s staff comes in. They have a statewide database at their fingertips and know the state’s available resources. Suddenly, finding help – whether it’s getting by for the next week or emergency housing for the unknown future – doesn’t seem so daunting for a first-time caller.

While Alaska 2-1-1 provides answers and relief to callers, it also provides critical information to those in position to provide help. Alaska’s United Ways, government, and even the private sector are now thinking of Alaska 2-1-1 as a social barometer, tracking needs and trends in real time.

United Way of Anchorage, which operates Alaska 2-1-1, recently produced the Alaska 2-1-1 Community Report. The eight-page magazine-style guide is a primer on Alaska 2-1-1 and its impact around the state. The Alaska 2-1-1 Community Report is available online as an easy-to-read, easy-to-print PDF – we invite you to read it at www.liveunitedanchorage.org/_uploads/AK211CommunityRpt2010web.pdf.

As need increases around our state, during the winter and year-round, Alaska 2-1-1 is here to help all Alaskans. To learn more about Alaska 2-1-1, dial 2-1-1 or 1-800-478-2221 from 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday or visit the Alaska 2-1-1 website at www.alaska211.org.