Getting Human Services to Rural Communities

Kathleen Belanger, Challenges for Human Services columnistby Kathleen Belanger

Almost every human services program eventually faces the same question: to centralize or not to centralize? Given recent budget constraints, more agencies are asking themselves this question; many have already looked at the cost of providing services to remote and rural areas and have decided that it is more cost efficient to keep certain functions in a central, urban administrative center.

However, while urban centers are obvious locations for specialized functions like technology, financial services, and research and evaluation, it is difficult to centralize functions that require personal interaction. People in stressful situations—those that the services are created to help—need someone to listen and assess their family’s situation and to help them understand the most pressing issues they face. They need someone to explain how they might address their challenges, and then help them link to and navigate state and federal programs, as well as local resources, such as churches and volunteer groups. Some services are only effective if provided locally.

But because of economies of scale, and funding silos that carry their own policies and administrative guidelines, workers who help people directly may no longer be funded and located in many rural areas. Services like SNAP or TANF tend to be offered through online application and phone assistance, while others (e.g., parenting classes, after-school programs, and substance abuse services) may only be available many miles from home. Some services may require a worker to travel to the community on a rotating schedule. Workforce assistance may be available one day a week in some areas, or not at all in others. However, when these services are not available locally, then those who are in the most need will have to travel hours and miles to the nearest service, and then travel multiple times for multiple appointments. They will have to talk to strangers who don’t know them or their communities or the circumstances they face. As a result, they often don’t get help.

In spite of the trend to centralize services, the people of Humboldt County, Calif., a rural county that has about 130,000 people in just over 4,000 square miles, are working collaboratively to provide human services to all residents. During a recent visit to Humboldt County with the RUPRI Rural Human Services Panel, I was intrigued with the way a network of Family Resource Centers provided on-the-ground help to the county’s most rural areas. The history of the centers is one of local collaboration. In the early 1990s, the California Department of Education offered assistance through its Healthy Start program to communities to create centers in school districts whose low-income students and families needed services not available locally. Humboldt County had several community leaders who understood the importance of community-owned and operated centers. Over a ten-year period, Healthy Start-funded centers were created throughout the county. They were locally based, locally envisioned, and locally run non-profit organizations. Local boards provided oversight, supported by service groups and local volunteers, and the centers became a space for schools and communities to host community-wide events including celebrations, services with elders, dinners and ceremonies. Healthy Start funds provided a local site, a director and a model that focused on family and community strengths.

Healthy Start funds were designed to provide funding for only four to five years, thus intended to help establish sites that would then fund themselves. In Humboldt County that’s exactly what happened. As Healthy Start funding decreased, the centers depended even more on local support. Each community’s vision resulted in unique programming and unique opportunities at the local centers. The communities realized that they also needed to join resources and collaborate in order to make the centers more sustainable. The center directors formed the Healthy Start School Community Partnership and began a formal partnership with the County of Humboldt Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

Through the formal partnership with DHHS, the centers provide some of the services that county staff could not otherwise provide locally. These include: information and referral services, nutrition/fitness education, recreation programs, transportation assistance, emergency needs, family and community events, meeting rooms, mentoring, parenting classes, play groups, student peer groups, after-school programs, employment training, family support services, food distribution, health education, and mental health services, among others. Because services are provided locally, families who are under a court order to receive parenting classes can receive them near their homes. TANF funding requires applicants to complete training and employment-related activities, although many in rural communities don’t personally have computers or broadband to complete the necessary online applications, or don’t have local access to training. The centers offer that access, along with a helping hand and community connections. The 14 centers have become integral to the health and welfare of Humboldt County, and to DHHS’ service delivery system. The partnership with DHHS provides substantial support for each center’s infrastructure and staffing, and provides training so that center staff can deliver county services and properly document service delivery. DHHS can help secure other resources (a task that would be insurmountable for individual centers), while the centers provide DHHS with valuable insight, information and assistance in accomplishing its mission.

The Healthy Start School Community Partnership employs a part-time director to help negotiate contracts and other agreements, to provide and secure necessary training for application and implementation of grant and contracted activities, to represent the centers as a whole, and to provide coordinated assistance with reporting requirements that otherwise might be overwhelming. The Partnership’s monthly meetings provide an opportunity to receive and share information with each other and with their community advisory members, helping them better able to advocate for their communities. Standing together through the Partnership, the local centers have a unified voice.

The Family Resource Centers are critical to healthy children and families in Humboldt County. Their continual collaborations, formal partnership and formal agreement with their county’s public health and human services department have resulted in sustainable local service delivery in hard times. Rural children and families can receive the help they need in their own communities despite a tough economy. This is a win-win situation for all, especially for families in these rural communities.

Kathleen Belanger, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Social Work at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and is a member of the RUPRI Human Services Panel, co-chair of Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) National Advisory Committee on Rural Social Services, and recipient of CWLA’s Champion for Children award in 2005 for her work in rural child welfare. Belanger has published and presented on human services issues in a variety of publications and forums. In addition, she has worked for more than 20 years with rural communities, where she has helped found several non-profit organizations and advocated for rural resources.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rural Health Information Hub.

Back to: Winter 2011 Issue