By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer
MERCER COUNTY —
Consumers of the county’s health and human service programs have made their priorities clear to those that manage those services, and while the top three needs – a job, a place to live and transportation – won’t likely surprise anyone, the suggestion was made that providers could treat the less fortunate with a bit more respect.
Kim Anglin, drug and alcohol administrator for Mercer County Behavioral Health Commission, was the moderator for a discussion Wednesday afternoon among clients and providers involved in various pieces of social care, from those who provide mental health assistance to those who offer housing assistance to those looking for help in finding work.
The purpose of the hearings is to develop a plan for spending the state dollars Mercer County receives for health and human services.
A meeting held earlier in the summer offered a glimpse of what needs county residents are facing. Within the last month, 371 clients and employees of social service agencies completed a survey, prioritizing what they felt they needed.
The top needs were employment, transportation and housing, followed closely by access to social programs, in particular mental health programs and help for those addicted to drugs and alcohol.
Seven people who took the survey commented on the attitude of those providing the services.
“I have noticed many overworked employees who have lost their ability to be sympathetic with the people they are trying to help. They have the ‘it’s a job, I just work here’ etc.,” wrote one.
Another wrote: “Try understanding people more.”
Mercer County District Attorney Robert Kochems said he can understand where people are coming from. “We are constantly asking people to do more with less. It’s a stress to the staff and consequently they maybe aren’t as pleasant as they could be,” he said.
Anglin said one of the first things that comes up in discussion with recipients of services is how people felt who were treated with respect. “Respect and attitude goes a long way. It wasn’t necessarily a big program or something costly that helped them, but just that they were treated with respect. Smile. It doesn’t cost a dime,” she said.
Michael Wright, director of the Shenango Valley Urban League, seconded her opinion, saying he’s been on the other end and he knows how it feels. “When you lose a job, it takes a toll on your self-esteem. I know, because I’ve lost a job. I’ve stood in a food line and it always sticks in my head how the people treated me with kindness. And I think Mercer County has that. It goes further than a dollar,” he said.
The survey information is crucial, Anglin said, because the agencies and the county have to report to the state how they spend the money they receive annually in the health and human services budget. “But also, we need to know what people perceive they need as it compares to what we are providing,” she said.
“And it struck me that there is a recurring theme of access, the hours things are available, the choices families can have and even how we get that word out to them,” she said.
George Cavanaugh, CEO of the Behavioral Health Commission, said he had done some reading on the recent trend of using social media to reach consumers.
“Access is an issue for all of us. For example, if I want to go to the courthouse, it’s open during regular business hours. Well I work regular business hours. So access to things is something that we all face and so that complaint doesn’t surprise me, but what does surprise me is an article I was reading about the use of social media to deliver services to people,” he said.
“For those of us who may be, over 35, shall we say, that isn’t something even on our radar. But I was reading about therapy groups being held online. And from what I read, the people who received the therapy that way were very satisfied. It’s an out-of-the-box theory that we may need to take a look at,” he said.
Others agreed with him, saying that Facebook is mentioned in nearly every meeting they attend.
Overall, consumers listed employment as a top priority, but finding work isn’t as simple as matching up a job with a skilled worker.
Wright said, “If you don’t have a decent job, then you can’t afford a car or a place to live. And without transportation, you can’t get to the food pantry. One feeds the other.”
He also said the Urban League is “the only game in town” with regard to housing help, and he sees his finances dwindling as well.
“Especially when it comes to rental cases it’s a very bleak scenario. And the mortgage foreclosures never stop. You read all those names in the newspaper of foreclosed homes. Those people need somewhere to go,” he said.
Mark Thompson, who works in the housing assistance program at the Urban League in Farrell, said shelter space is at a premium in Mercer County, and in particular, suffered a blow when the City Rescue Mission in New Castle announced it would no longer accept anyone outside of Lawrence County.
Kathy Main, director of the county’s health and human services agency, said the survey results all boil down to “basic human needs.”
“A home. A job. A car. If we can help them get these things, they may not need us anymore,” she said. Another agency provider said that while services for mental health problems and drug and alcohol problems are great, if the basics are not met, those play into mental health as well.
“There are families working two and three jobs. Everyone is fragmented, going here and there. It’s hard to have a consistent home life when everyone is running everywhere. That plays into mental health,” she said.
One respondent even offered a suggestion that might make Kochems’ work a bit easier: “Legalize weed for medical purposes, there will be less killing.”
A third public hearing is set for 2 p.m Sept. 11 at the offices of the Mercer County Behavioral Health Commission.