You Asked, We Answered: How will Chatham’s social services respond to the coming population increase?

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One of this week’s story topics comes from Bridget McEnaney, who asked about how Chatham County’s social services programs will change in response to the expected rapid population growth of the county.

I spoke with Jennie Kristiansen, director of Chatham County’s Department of Social Services, to discuss the county’s unique challenges and needs as growth increases. Our discussion, lightly edited for brevity and clarity, is below. 

But first, a bit of background on Chatham County’s Department of Social Services. The department serves the county’s population by facilitating a long list of programs: CCDSS’s economic services division runs programs for childcare subsidies, Medicaid, SNAP, and child support. Their “work first” initiative aims to support families with unemployed adults, and their family services division works to improve child welfare by assisting in adoptions and investigating abuse and neglect complaints. The adult protective services unit of CCDSS is legally responsible for 30 adults. According to Kristiansen, that program means CCDSS is North Carolina’s only public agent guardian.

Though Kristiansen says the department’s pool of collected data is not as comprehensive as she would like, one key indicator of the department’s reach is the number of county residents receiving Medicaid: she reported the number to be about 9,500 residents. 

Though it’s impossible to tell exactly how social service needs in the county will change over the next few years, it’s fair to say that the Chatham Park development will contribute directly to this growth in the area. The entire project is expected to stretch 40 years and bring 60,000 new jobs and a potential 22,000 homes to the county. 

Park officials have estimated a population of over 50,000 in the completed development. 

Kristiansen mentioned two key issues to consider when caring for children and adults in the area: poverty and affordable housing. 

Chatham Park representative Chuck Smith had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication. But according to Chatham Park, prices for “traditional single-family home sites” in the first phase of development will begin at $375,000. “Cottages” being sold in that same phase will start at $225,000. 

Chatham Park has also described a three-pronged plan for supporting affordable housing in the area. According to their website, 1 percent of Chatham Park’s housing units will “meet affordable housing criteria” and at least 100 homes will be “single-family, detached dwellings units.” CP says it will use $100 for each home purchased in order to invest in more affordable housing within the community, “provided that these contributions would be matched by both the Town of Pittsboro and Chatham County.” 

Q&A with Jennie Kristiansen, Chatham County’s Director of Social Services

Can you tell me a little bit about your background and what you do for the county? 

I am a social worker … so I have a master’s in social work from UNC and have worked for Chatham County since 2007. I came here to supervise foster home licensing and adoptions – and then have been the director for the Department of Social Services for the last five years.

Have you worked in any other social services departments across the state? 

I’ve worked for Orange County Department of Social Services. 

How is Orange County different than Chatham County? I think of Chatham as more rural. Have you noticed that?

I haven’t worked for Orange County for a long, long time … I think you have some similar dynamics … in Chatham, you have kind of northern Chatham County that’s overflow from Chapel Hill, and then you have other parts of the county that are much more rural. But I do think there are some commonalities, although in Orange County, the population is much larger. Chatham County is bigger geographically.

Have you noticed that a certain number of your cases come from a certain part of the county? 

The population in Siler City is larger … we don’t have a way to do mapping of where people are coming from to receive services. It’s not something that we can get any kind of reporting on. So, it’s hard for me to exactly say. 

Has there been any conversation in the office about this big population increase? Have you strategized at all about that? 

We’ve done a little bit of talking about it, particularly early on. A lot of the families that we serve are low-income families, so I think it’s going to depend on the type of growth that’s occurring in the county and how that impacts our client population. We know that affordable housing is a problem in Chatham county, so it’s hard to exactly know how that’s going to impact, for example, the amount of staff that we would need in order to accommodate demand … but generally speaking, we know that, with population growth, the number of people that we serve will grow. We don’t have a good sense of what that exact impact is going to be. 

From within your job and what you’ve seen over the last few years, is there any pressing need for Chatham County residents that you feel like is going unaddressed?

There are lots of areas where we have some services, but we really would like to see greater services, and I think that’s probably a struggle in most communities. So, for example, we’ve done a lot of work in Chatham County to bring in a stable mental health provider. So, we have Daymark providing mental health services here. And we have a number of people we serve who benefit from mental health services. So, having a stable provider is good. Would we like to see a greater service array, particularly for some of the children and youth that we’re working with who have higher levels of need? Yes. Is it going completely unaddressed? No, but we’d like to see more. I think poverty is a really difficult thing to solve. It requires a multifaceted approach. And so, are we making efforts to address poverty in Chatham County? Yes. Are we where we want to be? Probably not. We know that affordable housing is a need, we know that we have a lot of children living in poverty, so all of those things. I’m trying to think of something that is completely not being addressed, and nothing comes to mind. 

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