New 'navigators' bring help to hard-to-reach residents

Supervisors vote to extend social services' reach

Community Services Agency of Mountain View and Los Altos (CSA) has been a long-standing resource for needy residents in the North County, providing food, financial support, access to bus passes and a myriad of other social services. But it's no secret that families who could really use the help aren't showing up, and may not even know CSA exists.

Activists and volunteers at CSA say that Mountain View residents, particularly the immigrant community living around Castro and Mistral elementary schools, are missing out on valuable resources. It's a tricky situation, said CSA executive director Tom Myers, and it's a common problem among nonprofits in Santa Clara County.

"The population of folks who don't speak English or speak English as a second language need help navigating a system that can be confusing to even the best-educated person out there," he said.

Santa Clara County Supervisors agreed last week to take action, voting 4-0 to set aside nearly $250,000 for the upcoming year to hire three "navigators" that can build bridges between disconnected, largely immigrant communities and ensure that fewer people are falling through the cracks. Supervisor Ken Yeager was absent for the vote.

At the March 20 Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor Joe Simitian said the proposal -- which would start as a one-year pilot -- grew out of rising concerns about vulnerable residents missing out on critical services, particularly in Mountain View. He said it's likely that other nonprofits in the county's so-called Emergency Assistance Network are experiencing the same problem. The plan, as of Tuesday, is to hire a navigator to help CSA in Mountain View, along with Sacred Heart Community Service in downtown San Jose and one other nonprofit, Myers said.

An early job description envisions navigators as playing a crucial role in linking marginalized communities with services, particularly for sensitive issues like immigration services or resources for victims of domestic violence, according to a county staff report. This could include hosting community events, resource fairs or "speed screenings" in places where residents feel safe, and ensuring that community leaders and volunteers know how to navigate social services.

Myers described the situation as a two-fold problem. Social services are often mired in bureaucracy and not well-publicized -- creating a barrier for entry -- and there's a lot of fear in the immigrant community about working with any type of government agency amid concerns of a crackdown on immigration enforcement. Nonprofits like CSA are uniquely positioned to help residents concerned about their immigration status, he said, and are perceived to be a safer place to get services.

"The bottom line is that this is about helping people navigate the system," he said. "We do a lot of outreach, but I want to put outreach on steroids because we're still finding new people."

Representatives from the county's Social Services Agency could not be reached for comment by the Voice's Wednesday press deadline, but released a statement underscoring the importance of reaching families regardless of language and culture.

"It is our mission to ensure individuals and families in our community are connected to the resources they need," Social Services Agency Director Robert Menicocci said in the statement. "The Community Resource Navigator program will work to break down language barriers and cultural factors through targeted service outreach improving the lives of underserved individuals and families in our community."

CSA has yet to gather data on the scope of the problem -- how many people are missing out and profiling the people who are not receiving services -- but Myers said the navigator pilot could be an opportunity to finally put a number to the stories volunteers have been talking about for years.

"We're going off of what volunteers are telling us, and anecdotal information is good but we need to go deeper," Myers said. "We know that there's something there."

While Supervisor Cindy Chavez supported the pilot, she said she wasn't aware that this was a widespread problem. She suggested that the county consider making things like "cultural competency" and communicating across language barriers a requirement for its nonprofit partners rather than a problem that needs additional hires to solve.

"Cultural competency and language capacity should be written into base contracts," Chavez said. "I'm really not saying that to pick on any one group, I think I just didn't realize the challenges that existed for many of our nonprofits not having the appropriate staff to communicate or work with their clients."

Simitian said financial support from state and county governments are by their very nature hard to understand, and that figuring out what grants and funding are available to whom and how to apply gets complicated fast, even for someone as experienced as himself.

"My parents went to college, English is my primary language, I'm over-educated and I've been in government for years and years, and I still find it almost impossible to make my way through the maze," Simitian said.

"The answer is you need a navigator, you need a Sherpa guide," he said.

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