Social workers: linking the problems to the solutions

November 30, 1993|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Staff Writer

On a chilly, rainy Monday recently, Elaine Kushubar stopped to chat with an elderly man sitting on some steps near a Baltimore County Social Services walk-in center in Essex.

"He said he was doing OK, except he hadn't eaten since Thursday," Ms. Kushubar said. "He worked all his life and was getting a small pension, but it wasn't enough to get him by."

Ms. Kushubar arranged for a bag of food to tide him over, just one more good deed in a job that calls for many good deeds, a few mean deeds and a lot of understanding.

Ms. Kushubar, 31, is one of more than 250 social workers who scatter around the county each day to handle other people's problems.

Her responsibilities range widely, but her focus is narrow.

"Social welfare is all about children and keeping families together," she said. "The children are going to grow up. The problems are not going to go away."

For her clients, she is a powerful -- and usually the only -- direct link to the huge social welfare system.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, the county Department of Social Services spent or distributed $281.8 million in federal, state and county tax money. Of that, $18 million went to administrative costs, which included salaries and benefits for 570 employees.

Medical assistance accounted for $183 million -- 65 percent of the total county social welfare budget -- most of it for Medicaid payments to the indigent or disabled. Energy assistance, food stamps, welfare, foster care and similar programs took most of the rest.

Even with those millions, the department has to squeeze every nickel, said Camille Wheeler, director of the department.

"We serve up to 35,000 people, and the needs are growing while financial support from the state goes down," she said.

Those 35,000 people amount to 5 percent of the county's 700,000 residents.

While reformers search for the "right" way to administer welfare and related programs -- the latest state report on welfare policy came out in October -- Ms. Kushubar and her colleagues see the problems from the bottom up. It is not a pretty sight.

"I love my job, but I see a lot of sad situations," she said. "There are frustrations, but a lot of pluses."

A 50-year-old woman came into the small, walk-in office Social Services maintains in the Villages of Tall Trees apartment complex in Essex.

"I have a pot of chili on the stove, but that's all," she said. "Don't think I can stretch it for another week. I'm not asking for anything but food."

The woman sorted rags at $4.35 an hour for a company on Preston Street in downtown Baltimore until she was laid off in August. She lives on $133 in unemployment every two weeks but isn't eligible for food stamps.

"I'm looking for a job," she said. "I don't want to lay around, but right now I'm hungry."

Ms. Kushubar called a nearby church-supported food pantry, which gave the woman a bag of canned goods, cereal and rice worth about $17.

It is because of Ms. Kushubar that Social Services has an outpost in Tall Trees, named for the oak trees scattered abundantly through the complex.

"I thought we could be useful here, where the problems are," she said.

Tall Trees has 828 units housing about 2,400 low-income people. Norman Hatfield, owner of the complex, lent Social Services an apartment for the makeshift office, which the agency furnished. Social Services also pays the office's phone and electric bills. The office is open on Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Interviews are conducted in the tiny kitchen.

'A difficult time'

A 19-year-old woman stopped by, her 14-month-old daughter in tow.

"She was born with a medical condition which affects her ability to function," Ms. Kushubar said of the young woman. "I'm trying to get her on Social Security disability. She's really going to have a difficult time earning a living on her own."

She gets $290 a month from Aid to Families with Dependent Children and $203 a month in food stamps. Her rent is $275, leaving her $15 in spending money. The baby's father, a $H mechanic, gives her a few dollars a week and is trying to pay off the $7,000 bill for the birth of the child. The young woman's mother helps when she can, but she has her own problems.

"I got kicked out of high school in the ninth grade when they found out I was pregnant. I would like to be a secretary, but I have a problem reading things," said the young woman, shifting her parka-clad child from arm to arm.

"I have a lot of physical and mental stress. It got worse when my gas and electric was cut off."

To keep the young woman's utilities on, Ms. Kushubar called Jack McNamara, one of five emergency officers who handle evictions and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. cutoffs for Social Services.

"We can give $250 toward the rent and $130 on gas and electric, but it's a one-shot deal. Usually, it's enough to get most people over the hump," he said. "After that, all I can give them is hugs."

There are about 400 evictions a month in Baltimore County.

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