United Way, county work to coordinate low-income services

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By Arin McKenna

Sixth of a series

For both Los Alamos County and nonprofits whose mission is to help our low-income population, funding is the greatest challenge. Ensuring that the people in need of those services have access to them runs a close second.
United Way of Northern New Mexico has made bringing people and services together one of its major missions.
“There are so many different organizations in town working around these causes that I don’t think people know about,” said United Way Executive Director Kristy Ortega.”We’ve gone out into the community and spoken with the experts in the field−in this case it’s people that provide services around basic needs, whether it’s food, shelter, mental health, things like that−and try to find ways to partner/leverage around gaps in the services.
Ortega sees United Way’s role as that of facilitator.
“We want to help identify the resources we do have and the best way to utilize them. Because we recognize that for United Way or Self Help or Family Council, doing it on their own cannot be nearly as effective as doing it as a collaborative,” Ortega said.
United Way funds the local 2-1-1 Information and Referral number, which helps connect people to the services the need. 2-1-1 is a United Way initiative, but Self Help, Inc., manages the call center.
“211 is an outstanding underutilized, under marketed published number that everyone should have in their phone book,” Ortega said.
Ortega also chairs the Los Alamos Community Health Council’s basic needs subcommittee, which continually looks at ways to leverage and fill gaps in services.
The subcommittee was instrumental in two recent developments in county services: the creation of a Social Services Division and the decision to hire a case coordination specialist.
Recognizing the need for services to assist the growing population of low-income households, council approved the creation of a social services division in 2012. Kim Gabaldon was hired to manage that division in March 2013.
That division’s main focus has been the Health Care Assistance Program (HCAP), although that role has been greatly reduced by the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
Managing the county’s contracts with organizations that provide many crucial services, such as the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board and the Betty Ehart Senior Center, is Gabaldon’s other main task.
A search is currently underway for a half-time case coordination specialist. The goal in creating the position is to provide a more efficient safety net by creating what Housing and Special Projects Manager Paul Andrus calls a “coordinated continuum of care.”
“We have number of things going on in the county that just don’t all connect with each other,” Gabaldon said. “That’s not to say that people aren’t really, really good at doing informal referrals. It’s just that we haven’t had a place to coordinate it from.”
“One of the things I heard over and over is, why doesn’t the county have a case manager?” Ortega said. “Why do we not have someone who says, okay, here’s 25 different providers around food, that pay utilities. There’s no data base, there’s no one point of contact.”
The basic needs subcommittee created a document defining the need for such a position and delineating the various duties assigned to whoever fills it, which the county utilized in its job description.
The subcommittee is currently working to identify the county’s many faith-based organizations that provide services to low-income households, such as Aaron’s Kids, Aaron’s Closet and local thrift stores.
The ultimate goal is to help those seeking services move beyond the need for those services.
“It’s getting more to the root cause instead of just putting a Band-Aid on it,” Ortega said.
Ortega’s big dream is to have a centralized location housing the county’s social services division and the nonprofits that address health, human services and housing needs.
“You go in the front door, they give you a form, they analyze what’s going on with you and then they point you to the service in this one, physical place,” Ortega said. “It’s a coordinated effort to get these people root cause, real help.”
According to Ortega, acquiring a physical structure large enough to house the various organizations at little or no cost is the biggest challenge to making that a reality.
The other physical requirement would tbe finding something off the beaten track so those in need of help would not hesitate to come.
“A lot of people, I’ve heard, don’t go get food because they’re afraid that they’re going to see someone that they know and then be judged,” Ortega said. “It’s not easy no matter who you are or where you are to ask for help, but in this town the stigma is there. “
That stigma not only prevents those in need of help from seeking it, it helps to hide the problem from the community. Ortega herself grew up here but was unaware of these issues until she joined United Way.
To counteract that, United Way’s fall campaign is going to emphasize that we are all just one unfortunate incident away from needing help.
“If we can identify that within ourselves, then it might be easier to help other people,” Ortega said. “So with our campaign this year, that’s our goal, to get people to self-identify with the idea of need and needing help.”
Ortega is optimistic about the community’s ability to rise to the challenge of addressing poverty in Los Alamos.
“We live in a town full of people who are geniuses: innovative, smart,” Ortega said. “Certainly this is something we could all come together on. It’s like, we have a problem. What are we going to do about it?”