If you're eating three meals today and have a roof over your head, you've probably never heard of the 211 service.
It's like 411 or 911, except you use it when you're in such financial distress that you don't have enough money for food or perhaps even for a place to live.
In this economic climate, those conditions can arise alarmingly quickly.
"We have households that six months ago made $70,000, $80,000," said Michael Flood, chief executive of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, "and then the bottom falls out."
This is a consumer guide for the nouveaux poor, individuals and families who suddenly find themselves in financial peril. A good place to start is the 211 referral services, available in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.
The L.A. version is available 24/7, including holidays.
"All day long we have people saying to us, 'I never thought this could happen to me,' " said 211 staffer Irene Aceves while taking calls on a recent afternoon at the L.A. operation's headquarters, a former bank in San Gabriel.
Denial is common. Michelle Vu took a call from a woman in Hollywood who had lost her job, leading to the eventual loss of her home. For the last four nights the woman had slept in her car.
"I told her about shelters where I could possibly find a place for her," Vu said. "She said she didn't want that because shelters are for people who are homeless."
For someone who needs help, it's important to make the call promptly. Competition for services is getting fierce.
Maribel Marin, executive director of L.A. County 211, said the number of calls the service receives each month has jumped from about 30,000 last year to just over 50,000 now. With more people in need, food banks are coming up short, housing organizations have years-long waiting lists and the wait for medical services grows longer. Even the annual Christmas toy charities are hurting.
"More average people, not on the street, are calling to get Christmas presents for the kids and a Christmas meal," said Maggie Hutchinson, who has taken calls for 21 years at 211 L.A. County and its predecessor that used an 800 number.
It's not all bad news at 211. There are victories.
One recent evening, Miguel Serrano called numerous shelters until he found one that would provide a voucher -- rare for that late in the day -- for a woman and her two children to stay the night. As Serrano gave the woman the details, he quietly pumped his fist in victory.
Serrano had stayed past his quitting time to complete the call. But as he packed up he was beaming.
"A call like that can make your day," he said.
This is merely an introduction to navigating the system.
"If you've been a low-income mother of five, you know all the agencies and the nonprofits where you can get help," said John Kim, director of the Healthy City project that is working on a consumer-friendly online guide to these resources.
"But if you just lost your home and your job, you're new to this world. You are looking around, saying, 'Where do I turn?' "
One of the most direct, nonbureaucratic paths to getting help is at food pantries that provide the needy with free groceries. The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank supplies more than 400 of these pantries, and there are others that get supplies from other sources.
Many of these operations are located at churches, synagogues and other faith-based facilities.
If you have access to a computer -- and most libraries have terminals that you can use free -- you can find a pantry near you by going to the food bank's website ( www.Lafoodbank.org) and clicking on "Pantry Locator." Fill in a ZIP Code or city name to get a list of pantries in that area and their schedule of grocery distribution.
The locater also can be used to identify agencies that serve meals to people in need.
If you don't have access to a computer, call 211. The staff there has access to the list.
Each of the pantries has its own rules. Some allow anyone to line up; others may have geographical restrictions or limit the number of times an individual can participate.
The need is rising sharply, and donations aren't keeping up.
"Our pantry demand is up 41% over last year," Flood said, but the food bank has been able to increase its supply by only 33%.
Pantries affected by the shortfall are cutting back on the amount of food they give each person, he said, or by reducing the number of people they serve.
For longer-term help, people can apply to the county for food stamps, which can be used to purchase groceries at supermarkets and other stores that accept them. But there are a number of qualifications that must be met. For example, the maximum income allowed for a family of four in the program is $2,297 a month.
This is one of the toughest problems because of the scarcity of supply.
For short-term emergencies, free shelters sometimes have room, but vouchers are often good for just one night. And many shelters are set up for individuals, not families.