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Bainbridge: HHHS survey digs into community needs and values

At Bainbridge Youth Services, counselors help teens find jobs and wade through issues that can dog their lives.

Stress, drug abuse and family problems are all laid on the table anonymously.

But none of BYS’s services render good when the teens can’t reach its Commodore Center offices, which occurs often this time of year, BYS Executive Director Lori Midthun says. School busses aren’t running, parents are often at work and transit options are scarce.

“During the summertime, we have students with real challenges getting to their counseling sessions, because there is a lack of public transportation,” Midthun said.

It’s one reason why on-island transportation, especially for youth and seniors, received special mention as both an “unrecognized need” and a roadblock to the access of available services, in the Health, Housing and Human Services Council Healthy Community Checkup, released this week.

Affordable housing and dental care were fingered as areas with major service gaps in the study, which culled data from surveys of service providers, meetings with focus groups and community organizations, an online questionnaire and interviews with elected officials.

As with the first community assessment completed in 2003, the 2007-2008 checkup strived to identify human service needs on the island, and how well they are being met. But this year, it also asked respondents what elements make a community thrive.

“We thought that in addition to doing an update to the more traditional needs assessment, we would take a stab at looking at what makes us a healthy community,” said Elaine VonRosenstiel, who co-chaired the study’s steering committee.

Looming large as an unmet need in this year’s checkup was affordable housing.

In fact, four of the top five needs targeted by human service providers related to housing.

Homes for low-income families were an obvious need, but affordable rental options for families and seniors as well as assisted living for seniors and adults with special needs were also mentioned.

Lack of affordable housing is by no means a new problem for the island, but VonRosenstiel said it was surprising to see how aware respondents were of the variety of needs.

“I was struck by the fact that this added a lot of nuance to that conversation,” VonRosenstiel said. “We tend to look at affordable housing as one big package. But really the affordable housing problem is the sum of some very different problems.”

Despite two nonprofit dental programs opening since the last assessment, affordable dental care was again ranked as one of the top five unmet needs. Youth alcohol and drug use prevention, low-cost medical care and family planning services were also identified as areas where service falls short of demand.

Meanwhile, mental health services, abuse prevention, youth programs, vocational education and disability assistance were noted, along with transportation, as needs flying under the community’s radar.

The checkup pointed to several familiar trends as fueling the demand for human services.

The island’s population has grown at a faster rate than the county and state, especially among older age groups, with more than half of Bainbridge residents now over the age of 45.

The study said rising costs for housing and transportation are pinching households at a time when the city and human service groups are experiencing slumping revenue.

Study organizers were pleased to find that a number of service gaps identified in 2003, seemed to have been at least partially placated, HHHS Executive Director Jan Lambert said.

The demand for day care for special-needs children, for example, has largely been addressed, with better trained caregivers and an improved special needs program in the school district.

After affordable dental care was identified as a need in 2003, Helpline House relaunched its low-cost dental program, and the non-profit dental Smile Partners began a clinic at the Senior Center. Likewise, news that Bainbridge needed adult day care and “aging in place” services factored into Elder and Adult Day Services decision to relocate its Kitsap office to the island.

“These things occurred, in part, because the need was identified and people were willing to address it,” Lambert said.

Those ongoing, gorilla-sized problems, including transportation, affordable housing and drug use among youth, are issues faced by many communities, Lambert said, and call for a community effort to fix.

“What we look at is how we can chip away at those on a local level, and in a way that is specific to Bainbridge,” Lambert said.

The second portion of the study focused on the vision statement for the human element of the city’s comprehensive plan, which calls for a caring, connected community where individuals have opportunities to contribute. HHHS is the lead agency for implementing the comprehensive plan’s human element.

At focus groups, community gatherings and in the online survey, respondents generally rated the vision as very important and said the community was doing well at fitting the vision.

Most also said they felt well connected in the community, but respondents who were new on the island, or earn less than $50,000 per year tended to say they were more poorly connected. That same group was also less confident about the future health of the community, though 80 percent of respondents said they were optimistic about the future.

Bonnie Snedeker, who served as a consultant for the study, said she felt the respondents represented a cross-section of the community.

The online survey attracted a generally younger set of respondents, and more critical comments. Some saw the survey as being biased in favor of lower-income residents or asked why they should care about services for the poor, Snedeker said.

Though the online survey was publicized at ferry terminals, commuters were the hardest demographic to reach.

“If we were weak on something, we were weak on commuters,” Snedeker said.

HHHS will use the results to guide its work with providers to find ways to close service gaps, and will create a task force to develop a set of indicators for human service levels.

It also plans to combine the results of the community checkup with the response to the swarm of surveys already completed by the city, park district and other agencies this year.

“It’s a good time to put all of that together and see what it tells us about our community,” Lambert said.

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Health Housing and Human Services’ Healthy Community Checkup asked islanders what elements contributed most to sustaining the health of their community. These were the top six responses:

• Quality education opportunities for all ages

• A variety of health and human services

• Mobility and transportation on island

• Affordable housing for a diverse population

• Positive attitudes

• Community gatherings, events and activities

Respondents said potential threats to the health of the community included rising costs, uncontrolled growth, materialism and selfishness, and disconnect between government and the community.

The 2008 Community Checkup report can be viewed online at www.bihhhs.org and copies are available from HHHS. Have your say by emailing info@bihhs.org or calling 842-9335.

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