Metro Vancouver residents dial 211 to get community information


The numbers 211 are not regularly dialed on most people’s phones. Its better known cousin, 411, is so common that it’s become a phrase of its own: “Give me the 411.” But for more in depth information it seems you are better off dialing 211.

BC211, operates as a non-profit organization funded by The United Way. It provides residents in Metro Vancouver, the Fraser Valley, and the Squamish-Lillooet Regional Districts with detailed information on community services, social services, and government services. And it does it in more than 110 languages, free of charge, 24/7, and it’s completely confidential.

“We’re not an automated service,” says BC211’s Jessie Hannigan, “you speak live with one of our Information Referral Specialists, and they can access the information you need.”

Hannigan says their database has over 10,000 entries, and those new to the city (or more specifically new to their community) can get detailed information of services from cultural groups, child care, job searches, financial and legal assistance, advocacy groups or even language classes.

“You don’t just get one answer or one option to find a resolution in your search,” says Hannigan explaining that by calling 211 you will get exactly what you need “…you get it in your [own] language.”

As a phone directory 211 first started in Atlanta, Georgia by the United Way almost 15 years ago in 1997. In Canada it launched in Toronto in 2002 and is now available in 11 municipalities including the Niagara Region, Simcoe County, Thunder Bay, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary and Quebec City.

In B.C. the service was first launched in May of 2010, but was better publicized and mobilized in November of the same year. Before becoming a 211 number, Hannigan says it was called Information Services Vancouver, but it did not have the advanced technical service that BC211 provides. In order to reach information, callers had to dial a 604 number.

This phone service which is currently only available in Metro Vancouver, the Fraser Valley and the Squamish-Lillooet Regional Districts, is primarily funded by the United Way, and is committed to providing services such as help lines, online directories for senior citizen needing home-care, and support for independent or young mothers wanting advice on how to care for their newborn child.

Of the many calls received by BC211 Hannigan says that a large number of them are from the homeless seeking a shelter bed and a hot meal, or recent immigrant needing language and employment training.

BC211 tries to link new immigrants who need language and employment training. Services that are important to recent immigrants, as they don’t usually know what kind of agencies to call or what kind of programs are offered by government or charitable and community-based agencies.

Jonathan Meret, a student at the Art Institute of Vancouver once used the service in order to find a job. “It was really easy to get in touch with an agent,” says Meret, “but I felt like there was not enough help for young immigrants like me looking to find a job opportunity in a specific area. I got information that I found too general.”

Hannigan acknowledges that social services, in general are not as available in communities as much as he would like. But he remains positive about the future of BC211.

“Ourhope is that in promoting such services we can increase the value of social services in the community and access the help that [people] need.”

With files from Guy Landry