Help for financially struggling Gainesville residents is now available through a new texting service.

United Way of North Central Florida launched a free texting service, United 2-1-1, a few weeks ago.

The service, which helps people with issues related to housing, food, elder care and utility bills, was previously available if residents called or emailed the center. Now, people can text 898-211 or TXT211 for help, said Debbie Mason, organization president and CEO.

“We’re always looking for ways to enhance our reach,” she said. “I think it’s going to be well received.”

Those needing help should text their ZIP code to 2-1-1 to get started. Counselors will respond and do their best to refer people to a place nearby, Mason said.

For example, if a person needed a meal, counselors would text him or her directions to the nearest food bank.

“We, as human beings, all need help at some point in our lives,” she said.

United Way 2-1-1 is the organization’s signature service, Mason said, and has been around for more than 30 years.

She said she thinks texting will better serve current users and will help the organization reach out to more people who need the services.

“As technology evolved, it’s allowed us to serve people with different modalities,” she said. “Now, texting is more common, so we’ve evolved our modality to include that.”

Officer Ben Tobias, Gainesville Police spokesman, said some people are afraid to pick up the phone to get help.

“When you get to a point when you need to ask for help, it’s embarrassing,” he said. “Text can be a little more anonymous.”

Mason agreed, adding that the texting option might encourage people to seek help earlier.

Tobias said the service could benefit Gainesville specifically because students are tied to their cellphones, and an electronic option might be more approachable.

Bob Woods, city spokesman, said statistics show that young people use texting the most now, but older people are beginning to text more often.

Mason said United Way 2-1-1 is important because it serves residents of all races, ethnicities and income levels. The texting option is especially helpful for those who don’t have access to a computer, Internet or a home phone, she said.

Woods said it’s a valuable resource for United Way to make sure those looking for help can get it.

“It’s another tool in the toolbox,” he said.