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Alberto Gonzalez

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In July, Idaho's 211 Careline took 17,626 phone calls and got about 7,000 hits on its Web site from people who are low on cash, seeking child care, having substance abuse or mental health problems or otherwise feeling the pinch of the down economy.

Alberto Gonzalez supervises the statewide social services referral line, including the call center and a network of "navigators" who can provide short-term aid for people who are short on rent or need help getting to their next pay day.

Gonzalez was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, grew up in Lake Tahoe, Calif., and moved his family to Idaho in 2004. For months, he has heard tales of the faltering local economy over the Department of Health and Welfare phone lines. He is not, however, the former Attorney General or the largest credit card number swindler of all time.

What's is the effect of the economy on call volume?

The program has grown progressively since 1991. But prior to the last fiscal year, I think the record was 164,000 calls in that year. For fiscal year 2009, we had 213,000 calls, almost 214,000 calls, all as a result of our ailing economy. So it fluctuates right in line with the economy.

Any recent calls stick in your mind?

The most recent would be a call from an elderly lady, which was on Friday. United Way actually referred her to 211 because they knew all the resources we had. She lives alone, was getting ready to have surgery, needed assistance getting her house in order. So we found advocates for seniors, whether it was the Agency on Aging, Senior Solutions, a Place for Mom or any agency that was willing to help, we called and got these resources to this lady.

You don't just give them the number and hang up?

A lot of time we do, but occasionally you'll have a crisis call where you're not going to just give 'em the number. You're going to call ahead, find out the services, keep her on the phone. But the majority of our calls, they're able bodies but they just don't know where to go. 211, being a Health and Welfare agency, we know where to refer people, so they just call us.

Financial assistance was the biggest increase we had, so we make sure they understand the state services that are available to them, and we explain eligibility for them. For the immediate need, we refer them to food banks, places like Community Action Partnership and other agencies that we know can help them through the temporary hardships they're going through, whether it's helping pay an energy bill, helping make rent, getting clothes for back to school.

Are there differences between Treasure Valley calls and calls from other regions?

The difference comes in where the resources are. Treasure Valley has an abundance of resources, but you get calls from really rural areas where there's just no services. The Boise/Ada County area has more resources than Canyon County, and I would characterize that Canyon County has been hit pretty hard by the economy.

What kind of housing calls are you getting?

Out of the 213,000 calls that we got, 12,800 of those calls were related to housing assistance. So, somebody needing to find shelter, somebody needing rental assistance, somebody needing some form of welfare related to housing. Specific to this area, we got almost 6,500 calls.

A lot of times they're just a little shy of rent. It's not always the job. It's an unexpected medical bill, an unexpected car repair. A lot of our callers this year may still work but their hours have been reduced. The need has grown, and I think we've really tested the limits of all the resources in the state.

How does your funding work?

We're pretty lucky that in the state of Idaho, we're funded by the state. 211 is a national thing, it's not just an Idaho thing. In Idaho, we're really fortunate to have funding from the Department of Health and Welfare. We have received moneys from places like United Way, who's our biggest partner, and Mountain States Group in the past. But we know that every year--well, we don't know--but generally every year, the budget will be there for us to have the center running, where other states, they have to apply for grants, they have to hope the sponsorships are there.

Have you added refugee resources in recent years?

Our navigators work closely with the refugee group here in Boise. What we're trying to do is bring awareness to them that we're there. We do get calls from refugees. 211 has the ability to use Language Line. Although we have Spanish bilingual support, if we get callers that are of a different language, we use Language Line. Sometimes when they call us, we are able to identify what they need and where they can go, but we can't keep Language Line to follow them around to all these different services they go to.

What are some of the gaps in Idaho?

Substance abuse treatment and housing. Those are probably the two biggest gaps. Well, I'll give you three. Substance abuse treatment, housing and low-cost medical. If you're a child, there's definitely Medicaid, if the income's right, if you're pregnant or disabled or even aged ... if it's just a single guy in his 20s who doesn't have employment, Medicaid is not easily available to him. So we're looking for low-cost clinics or some sort of health coverage for him.

Do you have any thoughts on the healthcare reform debate?

No, I do not ... I know there's definitely a need. There's a great need for medical coverage in our state. I hope that some additional services are available to our clients, where there isn't anything available to them. Insurance isn't cheap and when you have, say, even a young couple that can barely make the bills with employment that doesn't offer insurance but neither of them are pregnant, with child or disabled, there's really nothing there. And if they're barely making bills and there's no insurance for them, I think there's a problem.

How'd you get into this work?

I worked Pacific Bell in California for 13 years in a call center environment. When we moved to Idaho--my wife and two kids moved here in 2004--my wife was always in social services, and I think from talking to her I always thought it would be something rewarding.

We just mass exodused out of California. We wanted to change the quality of life that we had for our family. We both had really nice jobs back in California. But I think your time was consumed, there was not much family time. So we came here to change that piece of our family lifestyle.