Getting Help from Social Service Agencies

Admitting we need help with addiction treatment or other issues can be difficult, but this is only one part of the battle. Actually getting services in place in order to get the help we need can be the bigger challenge. Most communities have free or low-cost substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling, housing, clothing, food, healthcare services (including insurance and contraceptives), career training, and employment assistance. Some communities can also assist with dental care, transportation, and daycare vouchers. Here are some ideas on how to get real help for addiction treatment through social service agencies.

Who Can Help You?

Call the county or city level Department of Social Services or Human Services first. State and federal level government agencies will likely refer you to your local department of services as a first step. It can also be helpful to call your local chapter of the United Way. The United Way usually only has information about programs they fund, but in many areas that covers a lot of different programs. You can also find information about programs by contacting local communities of faith, such as Lutheran social services and other faith groups. In addition to contacting any faith community that you belong to, also contact the large congregations and denomination associations in your area. Church-sponsored food banks, clothes closets, counseling, and similar services often go unadvertised. The Salvation Army and Volunteers of America also often offer more services than what is advertised to the general public.

Making the Call as a First Step

The first step is always to call your local social service agency first. Calling first can save you a lot of frustration. Agencies are often very busy and rapidly changing. Information you got from a flyer or their website may be outdated. The person you need to speak with or see may only work three days a week. There could be a power outage. Anything could happen. Save yourself a wasted trip by calling first.

When you call a social service agency, be prepared and have as much information about your situation as possible.

For each family member involved in the situation, have their legal name, address, best phone number, date of birth, social security number, health insurance information, employer's name and phone number, school name, and anything else you think might be remotely relevant.

Sometimes services are provided based upon eligibility requirements that seem to have nothing to do with the circumstances related to the need. By having this information available the first time you call, you can save yourself a lot of time.

Also be prepared to spend a long time on the phone and keep a pen and paper handy. The first person you call may not be the best person to answer your questions and you may be passed to several people before you find the right person. Take down each person's name and phone number so that you can call that person back if necessary. Avoid high volume call times such as early on Monday morning or just before closing.

Meeting Agency Representatives

Ask for details about what you should do when you actually arrive at the agency for services. You will need to know specifics about what to bring, who to talk with, approximate wait times, parking, and the times representatives are available if you do not have an appointment.

When going to an agency be certain to bring everything mentioned during your preliminary call. If you do not have a required document, call back and find out if not having that document will delay services or if a different document could be used. Ask if the document can be downloaded from the agency's website, and ask for the page or link. Plan to arrive early if you have an appointment. If you are running late, call to find out if you will be accommodated or will need to reschedule.

When meeting with an agency representative, request details about the service you are seeking. When can you expect services to begin? If there will be a delay, are there any temporary services available? What is the next step following the appointment? How long will the services last? Are there any fees involved? Who should you contact if you have a problem or question and the representative is not available?

Always ask each agency representative if they can recommend any other services that might be helpful. For example if you are getting assistance with housing, ask the housing representative to recommend services to help with employment. Sometimes a representative in one agency has a close relationship with someone in another agency and can help you begin the process.

Work for a social services agency can often be a thankless job. Remember, your representative is human. Representatives have bad days, impossible deadlines, and overly demanding bosses like anyone else. If someone is rude or disrespectful, you can let them know you wish to be treated respectfully, but also understand that the problem is likely not personal and you need this person to get services in place. If a pattern of poor professionalism from an agency representative persists, ask to work with another representative or the supervisor. Remember the goal is to get the services you need, so it pays to be nice.

Following Up

If you are placed on a waiting list, follow up with agency on a regular basis. When you do, ask if there are any new services you may be eligible for that address the same problem. For example, if you are on a waiting list for transitional housing that is two years long, check in with the agency each season to find out where you are on the list. Ask if there are new programs for temporary rental assistance. Let them know if your circumstances have changed.

All good things must come to an end, but there are a few things you will want to do to make sure certain services do not end prematurely. Follow all the rules of the program. Be in regular contact with service providers. Respond to any correspondence that is mailed to you. Ask questions if you do not understand. Unfortunately, many people experience gaps in services because they failed to respond to a renewal letter, or a social worker did not have their new cell phone number, or some other break down in communication. If a service is ending because you are no longer eligible, get in contact with the provider to determine if another service might be available.

Don't Give Up

Addiction and drug treatment costs can be high, so if you can get some agency help to cover at least some of the cost, it is worthwhile. Getting social services may require tenaciousness, patience, and organization, but getting just the right service from an agency could make a huge difference in your quality of life. Don't give up!

Cyndy Adeniyi is a counselor and founder of Out of the Woods Life Coaching. She enjoys hiking, Zumba, and flea markets in her spare time. She lives with her husband and two children in Maryland.

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