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  • Writer's picturejimrettew

Lost - A Tale of Navigating Social Services

Imagine yourself recently homeless…for real. Say you were a live-in home caregiver, but your client passed away, so your job and house vanished. You have two kids including a teething baby. You have no car and no computer. You have $2000 in savings, but that’s quickly running out because you’re staying in a motel until you can find a place to live. What would you do right now? Where would you go tonight? How would you get help today?

This wasn’t a hypothetical exercise for me. I coach high school football, and for one of my players, this was his situation. When I tried to help him, this is what I found:

  • It’s a confusing patchwork of government and nonprofit organizations with no clear front door. If I google ‘affordable housing’ in my county, I’m directed to my county’s affordable housing page, but there is no big button that says, “Need Help? Call this number or click here.” This is true of other nonprofits as well. I have to read through mission statements, meeting minutes, and donation pleas. These sites are not designed for the client.

  • If I dig further into my county’s affordable housing page, it gives me three resources. The first says that the waiting list for affordable housing help is closed and offers no additional suggestions. The second directs me to 211 which directs me to my state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing Enforcement Division (not particularly helpful). The third directs me to a nonprofit that went out of business.

  • There is no common application process. I couldn’t apply one time, in one place, and tap into all the government/nonprofit resources for housing, food, legal, healthcare, etc. I’d have to apply multiple times to multiple agencies and nonprofits. Each one will likely require an in-person visit, but without a car and with a screaming two year old, this becomes an incredible headache. How are clients supposed to keep down a job when they need to spend hours traveling by bus to multiple social service locations?

  • There are so many requirements that its hard to figure out if one qualifies – income, age, credit score, HIV, mental health, ethnicity, gender. There was one program where I had to be a single HIV Spanish-speaking mother with kids under 18 making over $40,000 but under $70,000 to qualify.

  • There are also a dizzying array of government programs. It’s hard to know which ones are right. There is Section 8 (low-income rental assistance), Section 811 (for disabled people), Section 515 (for rural residents), Project Rental Assistance Contracts (PRACs for elderly and disabled), the Low Income Housing Preservation and Resident Homeownership Act (LIHPRHA, also known as Title VI), Rent Supplement Programs, and Rent Assistance Programs. Clear as mud.

  • If I called the affordable housing units directly, I was referred back to county services to start the grind all over again.

What if I couldn’t read, or what if I spoke a different language? Multiply the headache by 10!

Here’s an alternate vision:

  • One common application to get the ball rolling. I file it online and its automatically forwarded to every county wide government and social service agency that I qualify for. My phone rings soon after that from a social service concierge who makes sure I’m getting the help I need.

  • One common program. It shouldn’t matter if I’m male, female, HIV positive, HIV negative, old or young. If I need help, I can get it.

  • One tracking system. All government and county nonprofits use a cloud based system like Salesforce to track a family through the system. There, we have shared success indicators, from a student’s grades to a mother’s employment status to a family’s health indicators.

  • One with the client. Make social service websites customer-centric. Put the clients’ needs front and center, and make it easy to navigate the system to get help.

If you run a government agency or nonprofit, try this same experiment. Take away your computer and your car and add a baby carriage. Have someone drop you off on the outskirts of town and pretend you’re in need of social service help. You’ll develop incredible empathy for your client. So often, the need to fill out a form correctly drives the customer interface. Instead, design the experience to help the client. We know better. We should do better.


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