The top issue facing Franklin County these days is mental health needs and substance abuse.
That’s based on a survey conducted earlier this year by the United Way of Greater St. Louis on behalf of the Franklin County Area United Way.
That information probably isn’t too surprising to many people, especially regular Missourian readers. News headlines reflect it.
Mental health also was the No. 1 need identified back in 1999, the last time the United Way conducted a community assessment survey here.
What is different, though, noted Paula Obermark, executive director of the Franklin County Area United Way, is the addition of substance abuse as a top issue.
Back in 1999, when survey respondents and community leaders identified mental health as the top issue facing the county, then-St. John’s Mercy Hospital (now Mercy Hospital Washington) had just closed its outpatient psychiatric ward, which affected a good number of people, Obermark recalled.
“Back then the concern was about accessing treatment, but now it’s more about substance abuse and addiction,” she said. “There was some of that 12 years ago, but now it’s everywhere.”
Breaking down the issue further, the survey found that methamphetamine — the use, abuse and making of — is the most significant problem in the county, followed (in order) by heroin use, substance abuse prevention and treatment, alcohol abuse, prescription drug abuse and access to mental health care.
This may surprise many people — the main barrier to accessing treatment services for mental health and substance abuse issues is lack of knowledge about services. And that is followed by lack of transportation and affordability of services.
Housing Ranks Second, Employment Third
Housing ranked second in importance on the current survey. That’s a change from back in ’99 when it ranked fifth (transportation was second).
Coming in third in importance was employment services — which placed 12th back in ’99.
Obermark said seeing housing as the second greatest need right now in Franklin County — before employment — may seem odd, until you think about how conflated the two issues are with the current depressed economy.
“Because of the economy, people have lost their jobs or their hours have been reduced or they’ve been forced to take jobs with low pay or no benefits,” said Obermark. “So people have lost their homes through foreclosure or eviction.
“Our agencies have seen a lot of families who were always good on making their payments, but then lost their jobs and used up all of their savings trying to stay ahead.
“What you see is the perfect storm. There aren’t enough jobs that pay well so as soon as something goes wrong — the family car breaks down or someone gets sick and can’t work or someone gets fired — families find themselves in trouble,” said Obermark.
“The safety nets of relatives or friends who maybe could have helped them in the past aren’t in a position to help now. Their own families may be in jeopardy. They may have used all of their own savings or they’ve helped as much as they can already. So now there are no more safety nets.
“Even with the government, there are less services available.”
Looking more closely at the housing needs, the survey found that a short-term emergency shelter is the greatest need. This is the same top need that was identified back in ’99, tied with affordable housing.
Other top housing issues (in order) were energy assistance for heating and cooling bills, financial assistance for rent or mortgage payments, affordable housing and public housing.
“Energy assistance increased from 34 percent in 1999 to 77 percent in 2012 in perceived level of seriousness, a percentage increase of 128 percent,” the survey report, compiled by the United Way of Greater St. Louis, reads.
The report includes other details, like a 2010 Point in Time Sheltered and Unsheltered Count that found 36 homeless individuals in Franklin County, and that the St. Clair R-XIII School District ranked 20th out of the 40 in the state with the highest number of homeless children enrolled (149 in fall 2010).
The main barrier to accessing services for housing, just like for mental health and substance abuse, was again lack of knowledge about service — which is identified as the main barrier for accessing services in every issue except transportation, where it was the second largest barrier behind service is not available.
The movement of employment services from 12th place in the 1999 survey to third this year is a result of changes in the car industry.
“It goes back to the Chrysler plant closing and those places that were suppliers to Chrysler,” said Obermark, noting many Franklin County residents either worked at Chrysler or one of its suppliers. “That work isn’t coming back.
“In many cases, these workers will never make (the money) they did before, and they may need new training even to find work.”
Survey respondents identified job training as the greatest need right now, followed by job search assistance/placement services, vocational rehabilitation and sheltered workshops.
Other Top Issues
A total of 14 issues were identified as being of greatest concern in Franklin County right now.
Following mental health and substance abuse; housing; and employment services as the top three are the remaining issues, in order of importance with some comments pulled from the survey report:
4. Transportation — “Franklin County’s size and distribution of population and cities are some of the challenges to providing public transportation in the county. Limited transportation options exist . . . for select groups . . .
“Interviewees saw investment in transportation resources as one way to make the greatest impact on the community and thought that transportation programs or services need to be developed.”
5. Safety — this includesdelinquency prevention, alternative sentencing for offenders, halfway houses, legal aid/representation, child abuse, family violence, gang violence and victims assistance.
Child abuse and family violence ranked as the top two concerns.
Last year, the Franklin County Prosecuting Attorney’s office had 654 domestic cases where charges were filed. There also were 984 incidents of child abuse and neglect reported last year, up from 847 in 2010.
6. Health Maintenance and Treatment — this includes dental care, clinics, prenatal care, home health care, etc.
7. Assistance for Persons With Developmental Disabilities — the need for daycare is the top need within this issue.
8. Family Supplementary Services — this includes child care, after-school programs and temporary caregiver relief.
9. Food Assistance — this includes food pantries, congregate meals and home-delievered meals.
10. Family Substitute Care — this includes group home care, foster family care and long-term residential care.
11. Education (other than K-12 public education) — this includes adult literacy, preschool/early childhood services, adult basic education and high school dropouts.
High school dropouts were considered the biggest concern within this issue.
12. Individual and Family Life Services — counseling, parenting education/programs, youth development/programs and mentoring are the areas of concern within this issue.
13. Community Relations — includes intergovernmental relations, racial justice and equality and relationship with other counties.
“A couple of interviewees commented on the insular nature of the community and the difficulty in thinking regionally (across the towns),” the survey report reads.
14. Support of Service System.
Why Survey the Community’s Needs?
The survey that the Franklin County Area United Way commissioned back in 1999 was the first of its kind in the community and one the organization had long wanted to conduct. When it entered into an administrative agreement with the United Way of Greater St. Louis in the late ’90s, it had the opportunity.
“For us, there were things we knew, but we were never able to quantify,” said Obermark. “The survey allowed us to do that.”
Now fast-forward 12 years. Times have changed greatly, especially since the economic downturn hit in 2008. It was time again to get feedback from the community to identify current trends and gaps and create a plan to address the biggest issues facing people today.
Work on the survey began in January and was completed in August. Information was gathered in April and May through public opinion surveys and interviews with key informants, a group of 30 people with insights and working knowledge of these area needs.
An experienced team of researchers from the United Way of Greater St. Louis compiled the surveys and conducted the interviews. The team included Jeanene Harris, Heather Dawson, Cassidy Johns, Cassandra Kaufman and Cathy Vaisvil, plus two interns.
The team said it hopes the report will be useful to all as a “picture in time” of the community perceptions of the health and human services.
It can be used as a tool and resource in making better decisions of how to proceed in making the community an even better place to live and work, the team said.
“It provides information on how community residents perceive issues and can help leaders with future planning,” said Harris. “We recognize that all needs cannot be met. The report provides a good foundation for the community to look at and engage the community in filling in the gaps.”
“This is really a wonderful report,” she said. “I like how they break down the categories and define them.
“They really do discover things, like so few people are aware of the resources we do have, so that tells us we need to market that, get that information out better.”
The team has compiled their findings into a report, “Franklin County Community Assessment,” copies of which will soon be available as reference material both at Washington Public Library and Scenic Regional Library in Union. A digital copy also will soon be added to the Franklin County Area United Way website, www.franklincountyuw.org.
Finally, a pamphlet listing the main highlights of the report is available at the United Way office in Downtown Washington.
The full report has all of the findings, plus supplemental information like a community profile and emerging issues as identified by community leaders.
The report does not contain any recommendations of what to do with the information, said Harris. That’s is something the team feels is best left to the community to determine for itself.
That’s why the next step in the process is to organize focus groups that include concerned citizens who feel strongly about the specific issue.
Each group will have about 10 to 12 people and anyone interested in volunteering should call the Franklin County Area United Way office at 636-239-1018.
The first focus group meetings will be held January and continue once a month for about a year, said Obermark. At the end of the year the focus groups will make their recommendations.
Greatest Strength: ‘The People’
The team from the United Way of Greater St. Louis has done many of these surveys and researched many communities across the bi-state area. Among those, Franklin County stands out to them for several positive reasons.
“One thing that came across to our group and the interns was that everybody, when we asked about the community’s greatest strength, said it’s the people,” recalled Cassandra Kaufman, “the way the community pulls together whenever there is a need.”
Almost everyone specifically mentioned the Washington Town and Country Fair and all of the people who volunteer to make it happen each summer, the team said.
“Everyone was very welcoming and thought it was good that we were doing the survey, ” said Harris. “They gave us straight answers — the good, the bad and the ugly, sometimes.
“They told us about the food banks and when they are in need of food, there’s an article in the paper, and then the food banks are full again.”
“You have accomplished a lot with out a lot of resources,” added Kaufman.