Midtown: Community

Triangle Family Services adapts to times

I’ve surely passed this place hundreds of times, headed up or down Western Boulevard en route to here, there or somewhere else. Yet, when it was time for me to visit Triangle Family Services to find out what happens there, I had to rely on “Madge,” my GPS.

I had the urge to learn more about TFS after hearing about its work around homelessness in Wake County during a Women’s Giving Network lunch-n-learn I attended at the invitation of Raleigh philanthropist Noel Anne Lichtin.

What I know now is there’s a wealth of stories unfolding at TFS I want to occasionally share with you during the next few months, stories about an agency that looked within to grow better. And I’ll share other stories about everyday people – from student interns looking toward careers in social work to people learning how to live and families pushing to survive.

The reason is simple: For 75 years this year, the agency’s mission has been rooted in the idea that the family is society’s most important unit. The agency’s goal has been to preserve healthy families, help troubled families heal and help people in crisis redirect their lives. In a nutshell, TFS is in the business of helping families, and the individuals within them, help themselves out of challenges.

Here’s how the agency described its work in the 1950s, when it was called the Family Service Society: “Individuals and families in Raleigh, regardless of economic or social status, color or creed, facing such problems as marital difficulties, strained parent-child relationships, unemployment, physical and mental illnesses, and many others, are given assistance in understanding their particular problems and utilizing their own and community resources to achieve the best solution to their difficulties.”

TFS is doing its job – still.

In February, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan visited TFS to thank the staff for its work to help homeowners struggling to stay in their homes amid the recession-fueled foreclosure crisis.

In three years of administering its Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing stimulus package, TFS prevented more than 4,000 foreclosures by working directly with clients, said the agency’s CEO, Alice Lutz.

Donovan “was here not only for the press conference, but he also visited with staff to thank them for the impact, the effect they’ve had in our community keeping families in homes, or quickly getting them back into a home,” Lutz said. “It was really powerful.”

Adapting to times

Lutz came on board as TFS was responding to the need to stick with its mission, yet adapt to changing landscapes and needs of our community.

With a driving question – “What are we doing to make sure the client and client care is at the center of everything that we do” – Lutz came on board in 2009. She reorganized and refocused the agency through external and internal analysis, zeroing in on measurements, impacts and outcomes.

As a result, the agency decreased monthly expenses by 47 percent, decreased no-show rates in individual and family counseling from 33 percent to 17 percent, and increased money it relies on from the city, county and United Way to supplement what it gets through individual investment.

“It’s less costly to provide services to these families,” Lutz said.

TFS assisted close to 7,000 families in its core areas of family safety, financial stability and mental health, she said.

Plans to move all TFS services, now split between Western Boulevard and Blue Ridge Road, into the Western Boulevard location, means the building we pass all the time will be home to family violence intervention services and supervised parent-child visits. The agency also offers counseling to address depression, school problems, substance abuse, LGBT issues, attention disorders, delinquency, and psychiatric and mediation management. And there’s emergency financial assistance and case management; credit, housing and bankruptcy counseling; home-buying and financial education workshops; and debt-repayment programs.

‘Like a hammock’

“We’re the safety net for our partnership community organizations,” said Lutz, noting many referrals from partner agencies to TFS. “We’re like a hammock: We catch people before they hit rock bottom.

“There is an array of ways we can help families learn, not just how to fish, but to find the water to learn how to fish and to be sustainable,” she said. “We’re almost like the best-kept secret in Wake County.”

No, Lutz wouldn’t be surprised if I’m not the only one who has passed her agency countless times, oblivious. But she’s certain that needs to change, too.

“We’ve been here 75 years, and what I’ve always said internally is, ‘We’ve been quietly doing our work,’ ” Lutz said. “But we really need to not be quiet anymore.”