SocialJerk Scrooge

13 10 2011

It’s no secret that we have no money. Not just here at Anonymous Agency. I mean everywhere. Donations have dried up faster than…I can’t think of a PG way to finish that sentence, but you know what I mean. We’re short on money because the city is short on money. Programs that used to provide furniture, clothing, books, food, housing subsidies, and Christmas gifts, have shut down or drastically restricted their services.

“Is this for a left handed boy named Lou with an incarcerated parent? Oh, I’m sorry, in that case we don’t have any toddler beds available.”

Many of the families we work with have been in the system, in one form or another, for most of their lives. Many of them remember the good old days, when there was more to go around. When we were handing out clothing and furniture like candy. And you should have seen the way we gave out candy! Some people also confuse programs. ACS might have been able to give you things that we can’t, and no matter how many times we tell some people, they don’t really believe that we aren’t ACS.

This means that people have some expectations that we can’t meet. “You’re supposed to help me. I need food. Help me with that. My mother’s worker used to take her food shopping. And my aunt got a housing subsidy through you guys!” Apparently, a list of food pantries is not “help.” They need their back rent paid off, or their children need new school clothes. Unless one of the workers convinces someone to make a private donation (we do what we can, but you’ll be surprised to know that most of us don’t run with a particularly wealthy crowd) we usually can’t meet these needs.

It’s understandable that people want this kind of help. Who wouldn’t? But there are times when it seems like it’s expected. And that’s when we all start to get kind of pissed.

One family I have is constantly in need. I understand why. The sheer number of appointments and programs that the mother has to attend due to her court case meant that she needed to take a leave of absence from her job. Her public assistance case was sanctioned, and she’s having trouble providing the basics for her family. So the agency was kind enough to approve me buying them soap and detergent.

The kids are now demanding to know what they’ll be getting for their birthdays. I’m sorry, but there are six of you. I know you’re only nine, but it’s time you learned the phrase, “not in the budget.” (With or without a coupon.) Especially when the request is for red Jordans. If you’re that desperate, you’re not allowed to be that picky. That’s how this works.

All of the families we work with are in need, but some are needier than others. Some really tug at your heartstrings (I have those too) and make you want to help. One young mother I worked with upon first coming here had a serious cockroach problem in her apartment. Unfortunately, I’ve been there. (When I’m a rich and famous social worker, I’ll reveal my landlord’s name on The View and ruin her. But not yet.) This woman’s management company was not responsive, and complaints to 311 did nothing. The mother was desperately trying to find work, but having no luck, and couldn’t afford to deal with the problem herself.

So I didn’t really mind spending $15 of my own money on bug bombs, when the agency said there was nothing they could do. Mom was grateful, we all moved on. The same thing happened when I had two high school students who didn’t have bus fare for the first day of school. As much as I wanted to hang on to my laundry quarters, I can deal in order to get them to their first day of ninth grade. They were also almost embarrassingly thankful.

Sometimes it doesn’t go this way. There’s nothing like feeling like you’ve made a connection with a family, only to be told, “You haven’t done anything for me! I need clothes for the baby and school books, and you haven’t gotten me anything!”

Every so often, we do get donations. At the beginning of the school year, we’ll get a few bookbags. Around Christmas, we’ll get some toys or movie passes. Once in a while a worker with connections can get a department store to give us some new clothes for kids.

But it’s never enough for everyone. So choices have to be made.

As much as we all try to deny it (or not) we all have favorites. There are some families who are just more pleasant to work with than others. They make our jobs easier, they’re more polite, their kids are cute. They also tend not to be demanding.

That’s not to say that they don’t need services. But they don’t show up to the office and tell you that they’d like you to make them a fresh pot of coffee (oh yes, this has happened) or have their kids go to you requesting new school clothes. As much as we all try not to be, we are all human. There are families that make you want to go above and beyond, lay your own money out, call in favors. And there are families that don’t. We don’t want to let these kinds of personal preferences interfere with our assessment of who needs those rare, precious handouts the most. At the same time, we’re not perfect. It’s something to be aware of.

But we also don’t want to foster unrealistic expectations, or dependency. I don’t believe that this is human nature. I do think people want to provide for their own families, rather than rely on the public, whenever possible. But we have seen that people can be made dependent on a system. The flawed way public assistance works is a good example of this. When people grow up understanding that this is where and how you get what you want and need, it’s hard to blame them for seeming entitled and pissing off their social worker. Especially when the system has changed.

I understand, as a social worker, that people have needs. Not just for counseling, but for food, shelter, clothing, and even for toys. I would love to be able to give every kid I work with birthday and Christmas gifts, and to pay for families to go on outings together. Unfortunately, it’s not possible. I understand why people are looking for those things, but sometimes it feels like people misread “social worker” as “Santa Claus.”

And no one even bothers to leave me cookies.

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6 responses

14 10 2011
Tanya

I’ll leave you cookies! I make great cookies. What kind?

17 10 2011
socialjerk

The afternoon after I posted this, I was offered M&M chocolate chip cookies at a home visit. It was a dream.

I also accept white chocolate macadamia nut. I mean, if you’re so inclined 🙂

14 10 2011
Carolyn

When I tell you that I can empathize greatly, you need to know that I do instrumental resourcing. That is my job. Period. The. End. There are families that are embarassingly grateful (I give you paperwork to complete and you give me hugs and kisses). Then there are the families where you present them with the moon and the stars and they question why you haven’t given them the sun as well. There are many reasons why I show up at work (at a children’s hospital) on Halloween dressed as a fairy godmother. Even the doctors understand. My latest line is “with this many miracles being pulled out of our butts, it’s no wonder a girl gets hemorroids!”

Have a fabulous and relaxing weekend!

17 10 2011
socialjerk

Wow, that sounds like an incredibly difficult job. I wish we had one of you! I’m stealing your miracles pulled out of butts line 🙂

19 10 2011
sarahk

This is such a frustrating thing to deal with. In my last job we had no resources/money to directly give people but would spend hours helping people find and access resources. Occasionally there would be donations (dishes, coats) or bingo prizes (soap, toilet paper) but the agency had never made it their practice to buy things for people. It helped SO much with boundaries.

Now that I’m back in NYC my clients are very used to being given all kinds of things. I guess this agency in the past (but not now) used to give people $300 to spend on summer and winter clothes twice per year (adults! I don’t think I even budget that much for myself!), buy them all new furniture, pay back rent, pay for cabs, etc. Now we can’t do that stuff and people are pissed, and what’s worse, the agency never developed a culture of actually helping people access resources on their own, so… yeah.

21 10 2011
Nectarine

A couple years ago, we had some ‘contingency’ cash left over at the end of the fiscal year (March) so we had an opportunity to help clients out by purchasing some larger items they may really need. I was able to get a vacuum cleaner for one of my guys. Ever since, around February he starts dropping hints about what he could use if I happen to feel like giving him a gift of some sort. It gets a little harder every year to find polite ways to say “that really was a ONE TIME deal”!

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