Blog Post by: Harold Pollack , on September 27, 2012
I happen to have crossed paths with a wonderful young woman whom I will call Jessica. She is an 18-year-old unmarried mom who cares for her toddler. A few days ago, Jessica and her mom had a bad falling out, and her mom kicked her out. Chicago's finest drove Jessica and her toddler to the station, and suggested that she call 311. Someone dutifully arrived to drive Jessica and her toddler to a gritty nearby shelter. The driver and the shelter manager signed some forms. As far as I know, that was pretty much all the social service intervention Jessica would receive.
Jessica and her baby slept next to each other in some sort of partitioned communal space, in a shelter that includes men and women with all sorts of psychiatric and behavioral health concerns. She knew she had a bed for the night. If she attended a prayer service, she could get a nice lunch, too. Yet when I reached her by cellphone to learn the above details, she had no idea whether or what any social service professional was doing to help her. She was at a local grocery trying to find some formula with WIC coupons. No one at the shelter had provided that basic item. As far as I know, no one was doing anything for her beyond providing a bed.
Not sure what to do, I contacted the social workers in our own hospital's adolescent ob-gyn section. The person I reached, Stephanie Mistretta, happens to be a graduate of our school. Because of Stephanie, Jessica and her baby now have what they need, and are making the transition to a respected mother-only facility. Stephanie drove across town to meet with Jessica, delivering diapers and other basic supplies. The two of them enjoyed each others' company as Jessica begins a new phase of her life.
Stephanie did a fabulous job. It doesn't detract to mention that much of what she did was vanilla ice cream social work, done by someone with the time and the skills to do it right. She established a human connection with Jessica, and sussed out what Jessica really needed. Stephanie opened her rolodex, made the required phone calls, and followed through. Someone else could—and should—have done the same things, as a matter of course, the moment Jessica placed that 311 call.
Without this happenstance intervention, Jessica would probably still be sleeping in that same forbidding shelter, with no responsible adult effectively helping her in a difficult situation. I wouldn’t offer some sweeping generalization based on such anec-data. It's just depressing that city services lack the most basic follow-through, even when a teen mom and a toddler were left homeless.