Lake Norman & Mooresville

Growth brings new community needs

The area's biggest needs are for assistance with education, housing and poverty, and health and mental health, according to a new community assessment from the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.

The United Way of Central Carolinas has teamed up with the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute to assess community needs for the agency's jurisdiction, which includes Mooresville/Lake Norman, Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Union and Anson counties.

The region's population has grown in the past 20 years to a population of 1,485,316 in 2010. Because of the growth, United Way of Central Carolinas has decided to re-examine how they provide services. Currently, the nonprofit organization serves 93 agencies and funds more than 200 programs.

The study performed by the institute came up with three categories of the most significant needs - education, housing and poverty, and health and mental health. Findings showed a need for better preventive services and public awareness campaigns.

Bill McCoy, consultant with the institute, addressed the findings in a community presentation.

Education, he said, is the area's greatest need and most difficult to fix. "(Nobody) knows what the remedy is, but everyone knows it's a mess," said McCoy.

While the United Way region's graduation rate is above state average, and high school drop-outs have decreased in the past three years, economically disadvantaged students lag far behind in the region.

In the recent economic downturn, the number of cases of child poverty from 2005 to 2009 has grown about 41 percent, with almost 2,700 local children under the age of 6 living in poverty in 2009.

McCoy recommended the United Way of Central Carolinas educate the public on how to access and use services already provided. Findings also showed that affordable, accessible quality child care programs, along with child care subsidies funding, would benefit the region.

The recession has created housing issues in the area, with the percentage of United Way households in poverty growing from 9.5 percent in 2008 to 12 percent in 2009. Poverty is concentrated in Mecklenburg County and rural Anson County. And unemployment in the five-county region was 11 percent in 2010 - higher than the state average.

"That's a big number," said McCoy. "It has a great impact on what the people in United Way agencies do."

He said there is an imbalance that stems from too much for-sale housing and a severe shortage of low-income rental housing. A solution would be for the United Way to educate the community about affordable housing and have support programs providing rental housing or multi-family housing for those who qualify.

Finally, McCoy addressed the community's health and mental health needs. Over 25 percent of the area's adults are obese.

"We started out by having the percentage of obese and overweight adults and that was so scary, we took out the overweight," he said.

With the number of local overweight adults added in, the number jumps to about 65 percent. But obesity is reversible, McCoy said, stressing the need for preventive health services. Also, revising the mental health system and adding geriatric programs.

Despite many of the grim findings the report showed, there were a few success stories. The teen pregnancy rate has decreased across the region, as has the crime rate.

In order to create similar success stories, the Institute recommended that United Way revamp their funding process, making it goal-oriented and deeper than it is wide, finding it is more effective for the agency to put greater funds into a smaller number of programs.

"You can't change the world, you don't have enough money to do that," said McCoy. "Find something you can change."

The end goal of the study was to make sure no community needs were slipping through the cracks and that the coverage of the region was adjusted to the demographic shifts and the impact from the recession.

"United Way should become a catalyst of change," said McCoy.