Monday, October 12, 2009

A new way of doing things

My mother lived for 34 years in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. A few years ago, the Sisters of St. Agnes built a new college from scratch named Marion University in that town. What I remember the most about the college is that the President of the College didn't build the sidewalks until a semester after the school opened. He waited to see what paths the students actually took and then he paved them over.

We could learn a lot from his efforts in the world of social services. The confusing and complicated maze of "help" we provide to citizens in tough spots requires folks to go to at least four different locations to find the services that might help them out. Once they get there, the staff in those offices are only able to deal with the programs that they actually work for and can only refer them on to other forms of assistance. A women with kids whose husband ran out on her leaving her with nothing might take an hour to get to a state welfare office. But the person in the office might not be aware of the job services that might be available at a state job service center or the opportunities for scholarships and living expenses to go back to school at a state community college.

A lot of people give up and end up dependent on a form of assistance that just might not be right for them. And it's pretty damn expensive to serve someone at four different locations.

This problem is getting worse. More and more people are slipping into the safety net at the same time budget cuts are tearing it. We need to rethink how we do this.

Tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. at North Seattle Community College we are going to see a ground breaking on a building that will allow us to do things more efficiently and more effectively.

After several years of concerted effort by the agencies and the state legislature, work is about to begin on a new project to provide seamless services that will have all four agencies in the same building, working together with the single goal of getting people back to work.

We are going to ask the people who work for all those agencies to work together to figure out the pathways that the people they serve actually walk. What do people actually need? What would be most helpful?

The all-in-one location will streamline services related to employment services, basic skills education, career training, unemployment insurance, food stamps, child support, transportation services, welfare, health care and other state aid. Metro has even taken steps to re-route a bus to take people right where they need to go. There will be a Sound Transit station across the street. These are new and better paths.

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