Financial stability, education and health rank as top concerns among local residents in the yet-to-be-completed United Way of Bartholomew County needs assessment.
Though the survey compilation will stretch through the fall, those topics constitute the community’s top priorities, according to United Way President Mark Stewart.
Ultimately, those concerns will shape a five-year comprehensive plan for community leaders to work together to address, Stewart said.
He has coordinated the assessment, featuring one-hour, in-person interviews with a cross-section of 100 residents and another 30 online interviews, totaling some 2,600 answers. Volunteers have handled resident interviews and data compilation to keep costs to a minimum.
“This has given us a perception of needs,” Stewart said. “Now, what we’re doing is drilling deeply into each of the categories (of needs).”
For example, volunteers are examining details on respondents’ comments about the need for affordable housing.
“If we’re talking home ownership for people making $40,000 a year, that’s one thing,” Stewart said. “But if we’re talking about people making maybe $15,000 a year and they can’t seem to find an affordable place to live, then that’s a completely different issue.”
Stewart said he will be mindful of how data compares with other surveys, such as the latest local census figures. Plus, he said housing data will be compared and supplemented with information from the mayor’s affordable housing task force.
“So one of the big themes of this assessment really is collaboration,” he said. “We are all making sure we’re aware of the different initiatives going on and making sure we have a tight connection.
“We want to make sure that any services we have complement each other and do not duplicate.”
Financial stability remains a topic that has earned plenty of attention the past several years here.
Eastside Community Center Executive Director Priscilla Scalf especially understands financial struggles among residents. Eastside regularly conducts financial literacy classes.
And another Eastside program that helps families keep their homes when facing foreclosure dovetails with the current needs assessment, since Stewart said respondents have drawn a strong link between finances and housing. Eastside also provides pre-purchase home-buying counseling.
“With the downturn in the economy, even in Columbus where the job outlook is still good, a lot of people still have taken pay cuts,” Scalf said.
Eastside’s financial training assistance soon will add volunteer “budget coaches” to work with struggling families.
Other financial help programs exist. For instance, Human Services Inc., in conjunction with banks and nonprofits, launched Bank On Columbus two years ago. That project encourages people with limited financial literacy to learn the basics of money management by opening bank accounts.
Figures from 2010 show that at least 12,000 people locally are “unbanked,” as Human Services puts it. That means they are not using any form of banking or credit unions. Problems connected with that behavior show a lack of budgeting, saving and more, according to program leaders.
In short, they say all that leads to financial instability.
Diane Trout-Cummins, assistant vice president at Columbus-based Indiana Bank & Trust Co., said the bank has seen little activity linked to Bank On Columbus.
“I still don’t think people are turning to the banks first (for financial literacy),” Trout-Cummins said. “Banks sometimes still are seen as unapproachable.”
On health, more hard information exists regarding people’s challenges.
Beth Morris, director of Community Health Partnerships at Columbus Regional Hospital, pointed out that the hospital conducts a community health needs assessment every three years. The last such survey, an over-the-phone questioning of 500 random residents, was done in 2009.
Questions cover prescriptions, affordability of the care people need, their health status and challenges and insurance.
Morris said the new survey will be initiated soon. Results should be complete in October, “along with our action plan of how to address those unmet needs,” she said.
“We want to make sure we are doing things in alignment with the United Way needs assessment,” Morris said.
The assessment will be a powerful tool, as Stewart sees it.
“We’re fortunate,” he said, “to have a pretty big voice here.”
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