As the Triangle booms, the key measure of its success will not be the height of its downtown towers, but the reach of its compassion.
Our commitment to those in need has been exemplary, but in matters of life and death, there’s no time for resting on laurels.
For 13 years, I have had the privilege of leading Triangle Family Services, which provides an array of necessary services to families in crisis – from housing to financial counseling, family safety programs to outpatient therapy. These issues and the men, women and children who struggle with them do not vanish in boom times, but they do have a tendency to fade into our peripheral vision.
Having just announced my intention to retire upon the naming of a successor, I would like to use this space to salute the Triangle’s resolve over the past decade and to offer insight on how to navigate a future that presents challenges and opportunities. In fact, the two often go together.
Take growth, for example. Wake County is growing by a net 62 people per day. For many businesses, that’s a lot of new customers. It’s also a lot of people seeking places to live, which inevitably displaces others who go looking for alternative affordable housing only to find … there is precious little. Around the region, homeless encampments are increasing their ranks.
Meantime, North Carolina remains one of only 12 states that have not expanded Medicaid. This leaves tens of thousands of people – often the working poor – stuck in the health insurance coverage gap. Being uninsured puts many critical health and wellness services out of reach. In this situation, one health incident can send a family spiraling into crisis.
The COVID 19 pandemic applied still more pressure to our most vulnerable families and our fragile support systems. Research indicates that mental health suffers during periods of shelter-in-place protocols, leading to upticks in domestic violence and child abuse.
All of this comes as we are finally waking up to deep chasms in the equity of our social structures, including our support systems. As we seek to cover these gaps, we only become more aware of how thin our resources are.
These challenges are formidable. They will not simply float away on a sea of happy economic development announcements. And while the Triangle includes many organizations dedicated to helping those in need, we can seem like islands, each besieged by a rising tide of social ills.
In other cities and counties similar in size to Raleigh and Wake, leaders have joined forces to cope with and stem the tide of pressing issues. In the weeks, months and years ahead, I hope we will see more public/private/nonprofit collaboration and partnerships – perhaps focused on one singularly dire challenge at a time.
Access to affordable and workforce housing is a good place to start, with an emphasis on agencies thoroughly trained to assist people in obtaining and maintaining housing. This could stabilize our growing homeless population and make homelessness much more rare and brief.
And, of course, every new person moving to the Triangle for jobs and quality of life can sign up to be the kind of volunteer who helps make that promise available to all. Employers can support this important and necessary civic engagement by making information on such opportunities part of the welcome wagon.
To be truly exceptional, the Triangle cannot allow those in need to fade into the shadows. We have succeeded not because we boast major waterways or scenic mountains, but because of our heart and grit. We have not been complacent – and now, at a moment when we might be tempted to get comfortable we can renew that commitment and determination.
New residents and new money don’t wipe away ongoing social crises. Rather, they are wonderful resources to bring to the important work of improving the lives of everyone. Let’s remember and act on that so that these boom times may become a time of hope and prosperity for all.
Alice Lutz is the retiring CEO of Triangle Family Services.