Gaps in Human Services to be reviewed in Feb. 18 meeting

Lee Future encourages our readers and their friends to attend the workshop of the Board of County Commissioners being held Tuesday, Feb. 18. Up for presentation is a large and important analysis of gaps in human services in Lee County: with workforce housing, public transportation and mental health for minors topping the list.

The work session will be held in the Administration East Building, Conference Room 118, 2201 Second Street Fort Myers, FL 33901 and begins at 1:30 p.m.

Originally published by Bill Smith in the News-Press on Feb. 14

Lee County study finds housing, transportation, mental health top human services needs

Bill Smith, The News-PressPublished 5:59 p.m. ET Feb. 14, 2020  

The biggest gaps in meeting human services needs in Lee County involve mental health issues, finding permanent affordable housing for working people and getting them better access to public transportation, a report prepared for the county states.

County commissioners will be briefed on, and are expected to discuss, the study’s findings Tuesday.

Lee County taxpayers will spend $78 million on human services programs this year. About $34 million is voted by commissioners to go beyond programs required by law or funded through grant programs.

The report puts Lee County in the top 25% of counties in Florida in delivery of human services that change behavior for the better, such as reducing drug use or getting more people into permanent housing.

The study was conducted by Analytica, a consulting firm established by Herbert Marlowe Jr., who holds a doctorate from the University of Florida and also serves county commissioners as the facilitator for their annual goal-setting workshop.

Marlowe defines a gap in human services as more people needing a service than can be provided in the county.

One of the big gaps is created by the cost of housing in Lee County and the percentage of family income required to find a place to live. Housing costs can impact the ability to spend on other critical areas.

More than 60% of renter-occupied households in the county spent more than 30% of household income on rent. Called cost-burdened housing, the expense is fueled by rental prices as fewer than 25% of rental units in the county cost less than $1,000 per month.

Less expensive housing also tends to be in areas where getting to work is more expensive because home is too far from public transportation or is a long drive from the workplace.

“Housing in Lehigh Acres is comparatively affordable,” the report said. “What occurs due to commute distances is that households are now cost-burdened with transportation costs.”

Affordable housing is defined in the report as costing 15% or less of household income. In Lehigh, affordable housing would cost about $7,200 per year for a typical family. In reality, the study finds, estimated driving costs for people living in Lehigh are $12,800.

The result: A working family in Lehigh can spend nearly half of its income on housing and transportation, before buying a single bag of groceries.

The scattered nature of home construction in Lehigh means public transportation cannot be frequent enough or close enough to close that gap.

“You can’t have transportation services of an intensely dense, very urban environment in a suburban setting,” Marlowe said. “In a denser environment, you can have more routes because there are more people — it takes a lot of people to make a public transportation system really viable.”

A third dominant gap in human services programs is seen in mental health issues and related behaviors.

In Lee County, youth suicide, alcohol-related behavior issues and rates of homicide and sexual violence among young people are identified as areas that need attention.

The study states that the suicide rate per 100,000 people age 19-21 is 16.1, or more than 25% higher than the state rate.

“There is no funding specifically dedicated to suicide in Lee County,” the report said. It suggests SalusCare, a provider of behavioral health care in Southwest Florida, could address the issue.

The report recommends the agency, which provides mental health and substance abuse treatment, could use existing programs in areas such as crisis stabilization units, counseling and outpatient therapy to reach those at risk of suicide.

Troubled families is also an area in which risks are high.

The study finds that 44% of juveniles in Lee County have had a family member in jail or prison and 45% of juveniles use illegal prescription drugs.

Sexual violence involving children also runs worse in Lee County than the trend statewide. From 2015 to 2017, 73.5 cases were reported per 100,000 population.

One recommendation seen frequently in the report is a suggestion that advanced technology be used to deliver services.

Mental health is one area in which the Marlowe report sees the potential for improving delivery.

“While there are certainly cases or treatments that require the physical presence of the person, services exist that can be delivered remotely,” the report said. “The potential for service via telepresence technologies should be considered.”

The study was a collaborative project involving Marlowe’s firm, county staff and human service providers in the county.

“I had a hundred meetings,” Marlowe said in a telephone interview. “We invited everybody in the human service community and once I had a first draft I sent it out to persons in an area. People who serve seniors got theirs. Folks who work with persons of developmental disabilities got that chapter.”

After initial contacts in local agencies, Marlowe said, other professionals involved with the agency would have seen the report.

Florida devotes the least amount of dollars to funding mental health services and it’s putting vulnerable kids in a bad state of mind. The News-Press

The final product, he said, is an effort to go beyond searching for areas in which needs outstrip the capacity of public and private agencies and address the needs.

A county presentation prepared for a discussion of the report Tuesday claims that many of the gaps are the result of state and national government policies.

The county will call for a 30-day comment period on the report before finalizing the draft submitted by Marlowe.

Additional commission meetings on human services priorities are anticipated.

“I’ve tried to do a broader job. I contracted to do a needs analysis,” Marlowe said. “Human services studies are just, ‘Here are our needs, let’s prioritize our needs.’

“I looked at capacity gaps, but I also look at best practices. There’s a knowledge base in terms of what works and what doesn’t.”

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