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Addressing needs of Latino community in San Mateo County

Housing, substance use and mental health services top priorities

Aug 15, 2023

Updated Aug 17, 2023

Addressing community struggles by building off its strengths was Ayudando Latinos A Soñar’s approach during an event in Half Moon Bay last week, and growth strategies were shared amid laughter, music and food.

While Thursday’s event at the Sueño Center plaza was an official presentation revealing results from a countywide survey, it had the feeling of a celebration. The indoor plaza was filled with around 200 community members, sheriff’s deputies and District 3 Supervisor Ray Mueller, who mingled between presentations. A taquero was outside the plaza cooking quesadillas and tacos, which ALAS provided for all the attendees. There was a traditional Mexican dance routine performed by two children who appeared to be around 8 years old.

Dr. Belinda Hernandez Arriaga, ALAS founder and executive director, said the songs were a calling to their ancestors and the gathering was meant to celebrate the survey and the community’s ability to share their concerns and voices.

The county survey effort involved interviewing nearly 500 residents. The results revealed people were mostly concerned with housing, finances, substance use, mental health support and an overall need for more support services and better access, according to the presentation.

Of the 358 adults surveyed, 43% experienced financial hardships in the past year, according to the presentation. One coastal farmworker said the barrier for therapy and medication is difficult to afford, since they earn $16 an hour, according to the survey.

The survey results identified 20% of adults lost their jobs and 26% had a place to live but are worried about losing it in the future. While 34% of adults felt sad or alone some of the time, 8% felt sad most of the time.

“Housing impacts mental health, and mental health is significant, so we need to think critically about how we are doing that,” Arriaga said.

ALAS provides mental health services, crisis support, social services and cultural arts resources. Sueño Center is a community gathering spot, with ALAS’ case management office and an open plaza with a bright studio for the community to use.

Inside one of the center’s studios Thursday, children were creating artwork facilitated by ALAS volunteers. While parents were sitting in listening to the presentation, dozens of children were creating fish from paper plates with coloring pens, paper and glue sticks. Arriaga said the organization recently acquired the studio and plans to turn it into an arts and crafts area for the community.

“We want to make sure we can use this as an artisan market, we want to be able to have our own community make arts and crafts for them to sell and it brings a little bit of income home,” Arriaga said. “We kept realizing we kept hitting a wall with the issues of housing and they need more income.”

The recommendation is to help provide financial assistance to help struggling families and young adults find affordable housing and provide job training and placement services for those who are unemployed or underemployed. There was also a recommendation that free mental health services be provided for community members experiencing stress and anxiety. That’s a service ALAS provides.

Another survey finding is that Latino community members feel language barriers make it difficult to access services. The language barrier makes it difficult and frustrating for people to know where to go and look to receive help. Many people don’t have access to the internet and cellphones, said a farmworker, according to the survey.

The survey results showed 43% of Latino adults access information through TV news, 31% through social media and 25% get information through community organizations. And 32% of adults shared that they didn’t know where to go to find resources for their kids and families, according to the presentation.

ALAS is working on acquiring laptops to provide an internet cafe for the community to access internet and resources, Arriaga said.

Providing services in multiple languages and increasing the number of Latino service providers would meet these goals. Also, the community is asking for crisis support without involving law enforcement.

“If it’s not in Spanish, it’s not accessible,” ALAS coordinator Rae Abileah said, who added it is important to create a warm and welcoming space.

San Mateo County funded three needs assessments in the Black, Latino and Pacific Islander communities through state funding for COVID-19 relief and help with alcohol and drug prevention. The county asked ALAS to lead the Latino community assessment. It collaborated with 10 other nonprofit organizations around the county to find answers to what are the barriers for the community to access mental health and substance use services, Abileah said.

“In this case, it was very different because the community was creating the questions and so they became more culturally appropriate,” Abileah said.

The survey also revealed substance use became more normalized during the pandemic, Arriaga said. Latino teens are first using alcohol and cannabis around 13 to 14 years old, according to the presentation. Arriaga said that youth vaping is also a huge issue that needs to be addressed. Of the teens who use cannabis, 16% of males and 21% of females reported using cannabis daily.

The recommendation is to increase awareness of symptoms and effects of substance abuse for alcohol, vaping and cannabis and promote healthier coping strategies for stress with public education. It is also important to provide alternative activities and outlets for the youth Latino community to avoid gangs and substance use.

Arriaga said the community outreach is the first phase and Thursday was a celebration of hearing and listening to the community’s concerns.

“How do we make it shift? Not only get the information but what are we going to do to take this back and make changes,” Arriaga said.

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