By Todd Cohen
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Latino population in Mecklenburg County is growing quickly, widening the gap between Latinos’ social-services needs, and local agencies’ ability to address them.
To help understand that gap, and find ways to close it, the county’s largest and oldest Latino agency has teamed up with the Urban Institute at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Funded with a $105,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Latin American Coalition has hired the institute to help it study Latinos’ needs, as well as service gaps and barriers, says Jess George, the coalition’s associate director.
Mecklenburg’s Latino population has grown more than six-fold since 1990 and now totals 66,000, or 8.7 percent of the county’s population, says Christian Friend, director of community and research services at the Urban Institute.
From 1980 to 2000, the Latino population in only three other locales among the 100 most populous U.S. communities grew faster than did Latinos in the Charlotte metro area, according to a study by the Brookings Institution and Pew Hispanic Center.
Faced with that growth, says George, the coalition has struggled to cope with soaring demand for services.
In the past three years, the number of clients the agency has served directly has increased to 12,000 from 4,700, she says, prompting it to double its staff, to eight employees, in the past year alone.
“Social services in our community are always struggling to really meet the most critical needs of the families who need these services, whether it be economically or socially or civically,” George says.
“When you have a huge influx of population with new needs and challenges and barriers,” she says, “that becomes an undue burden, forcing many agencies to guess how to best serve the community.”
A lack of trust on the part of Latinos can be a big barrier for agencies that aim to serve them, George says.
Word of mouth, for example, accounts for 80 percent to 90 percent of clients who turn to the coalition, she says.
And while the coalition refers clients whenever possible to other agencies, she says, some of them consistently return to the coalition because of barriers to service they may perceive at other agencies.
Formed in 1990, the coalition provides a broad range of education and advocacy services, George says, as well as events celebrating Latino culture, include an annual Latin American Festival that in October attracted over 18,000 people.
“We help Latino families navigate throughout our community,” she says.
The new study, to be completed in February or March, will include focus groups, mail and phone surveys, and interviews with Latino and agency leaders.
George says the coalition hopes the study will serve as a resource for other agencies that want to better serve Latinos or secure funding to begin or improve their outreach to Latinos.
The goal, she says, is to ensure that “our Latino community is getting the services they need, and the quality of services they need, delivered to them where and how they need them.”