Lisa Morrison Butler: Help! Fix the DFSS Helpline!

I really thought it was going to be easy. I have a friend I’ve known nearly all of our lives. My friend is a hard-working court reporter. He has worked very hard all of his adult life at this difficult hourly job, and for the past few years has also had to care for his dying mother.

Last year, he had to pay off his mother’s massive credit-card debt by taking out a mortgage on her home, and he then lost the home in a short sale because he couldn’t make the payments. Today, he is being financially abused by a relative in Chicago’s crime- and poverty-ridden Auburn Gresham and is now facing homelessness. After speaking with one of his cousins in New Jersey, we calculated that since he will turn 63 in March, it’s a good time to start helping him find the services he needs. He’s certainly earned them.

With homelessness and freezing temperatures up in Chicago, why is it so hard to get basic help from city servants?

Lisa Morrison Butler is Mayor Emanuel’s newly appointed Commissioner of the Department of Family and Support Services, coming from a successful few years at CityYear. Her department is supposed to help people help themselves. But if you can’t reach them, there’s no way. I also need to find ways to help my friends that are not going to cost me my whole day. DFSS’s customer-facing is going to have to improve for anyone to be able to do that. So far, I’ve invested more than an hour just finding out that I had the wrong number, and now I’m totally lost in the woods.

Yesterday (Sunday), I called their front-end helpline, 312-744-4016, and dutifully pressed the button for referrals. A message said that I would have to call back tomorrow because today is Sunday. I called back in the morning and was simply told the following by a machine: “Your call is very important to us. However, we are experiencing an extremely high call volume. Please call back later.”

No telling me what days and times are best to call, no telling me how many minutes I’ll have to wait, and certainly no inviting me to press some button to leave a phone number.

Around 11:45 a.m., I tried again. At least this time I got past that message, which made me assume that they did not have “an extremely high call volume.” But after 47 and a half minutes of patiently waiting through , I finally was able to speak to Christina. Christina stopped me after 30 seconds and told me that DFSS helps only with homemaker services, Meals on Wheels, and adult daycare. My friend qualifies for none of that. I need to look into Section 8 or senior housing, in addition to other possible services, and I was hoping simply to get him connected to a caseworker. No dice.

Why would it take over 45 minutes on hold and three trips to the Internet just to be told I had the wrong number? Do you know, while I had the phone to my ear, I was able to put on my coat and walk in the cold to my son’s school, sign a release form, and walk back, just to continue to wait on hold. How’s that for multitasking?

Where is the City on multitasking? Amid recent City Council complaints of dismal services for the homeless, the department needs to make sure that when it has an opportunity to capture a client, they don’t lose them to their technological black hole. One extraordinarily simple way to do that is to allow them to leave a message with a phone number and to be called back when it is convenient. Another is to give the customer some accurate idea of the wait time. A third is to offer these possibilities even when the office is closed. These are basic services that human receptionists used to offer. Today, the caller is always left holding the bag, and in this case there is neither any predictive information given nor some avenue of recourse.

The inconveniences offered by this city tend to begin with the initial phone call. Many people give up after the first try. Lisa Morrison Butler has the power to change the little things in people’s lives, starting with this.


About Peter Zelchenko

Just read and enjoy. I cannot account for 50 years in this small space, nor the past 40 on technology's strange edge.
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