County seeks input for addressing poverty

EDINBURG — Three years ago, when the Hidalgo County Community Service Agency (CSA) began assessing the needs of residents, staff there realized the agency was lagging in the services provided to veterans.

“CSA was not doing as good a job at addressing veteran needs,” Executive Director Jaime Longoria said. “There was a whole segment of the population that didn’t know we existed for utility assistance. So we targeted veterans.”

At the time, the agency, which is tasked with addressing poverty in Hidalgo County, was helping about 76 veterans per year with utility assistance. However, after staff heard from stakeholders and the community at large about the gap in services, the agency partnered with the Texas Veterans Commission and obtained a grant that expanded the agency’s reach.

“Now we are serving well over 550 veterans and their families,” Longoria said.

Longoria and his staff were able to address the needs because they took the time to listen to the community, he said. Every three years, his agency is tasked with compiling a community needs assessment that helps the agency decide where to spend its money.

Each year, CSA receives about $4 million to help low-income residents pay their utility bills and another $1.6 million in more flexible funds. The flexible funds are used in a more holistic approach to help families in need by providing an array of services.

Once again the agency needs help in determining where to spend its money.

“We are governed by the folks, and we listen to the folks that we are charged to serve,” Longoria said. “So the needs of the people of Hidalgo County might be very different from the people in El Paso County.”

In order to better understand them, the agency organized three public hearings. The first was held in Weslaco on Monday evening.

A handful of attendees took turns talking about topics near and dear to them, including wider access to health care and child care, but it was one woman’s experience with foster care that really struck Longoria.

“I spent some time in foster care, and I have a lot of brothers and sisters,” the woman said, stopping to hold back tears. “I feel like after 18, they are forgotten.”

Services for those aged 18 and older are few and far between, she said.

She went on to describe how one of her foster siblings is struggling with homelessness and was forced to give up school for lack of reliable transportation.

“Who do they get help from? Where do they fall,” the woman asked. “They have nobody.”

“That’s an incredible insight,” Longoria said after her input. “What an eye opener for me.”

He went on to describe feeling the same way when he learned about the lack in veteran services three years ago.

“I just had that same moment right now with what you said about foster care,” Longoria told her.

CSA is inviting the public to participate in the two remaining public hearings. One will be held today (Tuesday) at 6 p.m. at the Endowment Center in San Carlos, 107 Sunflower Rd., and the other will be held Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Pharr Development and Research Center, 850 W. Dicker Rd., in south Pharr.

“We need your help,” event organizers said.

Nlopez@themonitor.com