Serving the Poor with Dignity and Respect: Jean Andolsen

by Beth Prebel

Jean Andolsen is the Associate Director, Initial Assistance for the Cuyahoga County Department of Human Services. Andolsen and her staff determine eligibility for welfare benefits, or as Jean prefers to call it, human services. And, keeping the focus on human is what stands out about Jean.

Andolsen is a veteran of the Department of Human Services. She has been in her current position for 6 years, but has been with the department for 27. With an undergraduate degree in political science and a masters degree in social work, Andolsen is well qualified for her role.

Matching up people with the available resources is what Andolsen enjoys about her work. However, this is no easy task. Andolsen’s staff of 240 handles approximately 3,000 applications each month. When a person contacts Human Services, an interview is scheduled for them to meet with a staff member. In order to determine eligibility, it is necessary to obtain specific information from each applicant. Recently, an inter-active application was created on computer, making the process more efficient.

Not all recipients have direct contact with Human Services. Many applications are handled from nursing homes for those on Medicaid. The department also handles benefit payments for those on medical care.

One of the challenges Andolsen faces is a reduction in benefits. Over the years, there has been a significant decrease in available services. For example, the only assistance a single adult can now receive is food stamps. Worth noting is that about 30-40% of the persons receiving assistance are single adults. Yet Andolsen will try to utilize whatever options are available. If the person is disabled, he or she might be eligible for Social Security income. And, if the person is employable, he or she will be directed to the jobs department.

Providing human services is not the popular and “hot” issue it once was. One reason is that the needs of those requiring assistance are complex and not easily resolved. In a society that demands immediate results, resolving human issues falls short. There may be a multitude of concerns involved ranging from alcohol and drug abuse, to mental illness and social problems. Because the interviewer is not a social worker, he or she must direct the applicant to the appropriate agency. It is a process that may take time. However, the Department of Human Services is audited by various people and agencies to ensure that they are following all procedures and in compliance with regulations. Failure to do so could result in a reduction of benefits.

There is an inclination for society to view recipients as lazy or looking for a handout. Andolsen believes that not everyone starts out on the same footing. Unlike the stereotype, there is no specific “type” of recipient. The majority of recipients are not “lifers." Most individuals need assistance on an on again/off again basis. Much of the public is not aware of the various situations affecting people that result in their need for assistance. These include refugees (many from Bosnia), AIDS patients, and displaced older women who cannot find work. During Desert Storm, Andolsen saw many military wives whose husbands were away.

Lately there has been a tendency to zero in on young women, particularly on unmarried women with children. But the fact is, and what most people are not aware of, is that more assistance is sent to nursing home patients for Medicare than is spent on ADC.

It is the philosophy of Andolsen and her staff to show a respectful manner so as not to demean people. They assist those who have needs, with the goal being a permanent job with benefits. In response to the public’s recent demand for employment, a special unit was created to help those with social problems that prevent them from being employable.

There is progress, particularly in dealing with the issues of the homeless.

A unit for the homeless was established by Andolsen several years ago. The most important and successful aspect of this unit is the 24-hour turn around time from when a homeless individual contacts Human Services to when the applications taken.

Through the efforts of the unit, a homeless person can now use the address of the office of Human Services or the shelter as a mailing address to receive benefits.

Andolsen is pleased with the administration’s knowledge and education regarding the issues confronting the homeless. An example is illustrated with homeless women. In some counties, homelessness constitutes child abuse. However, she is proud to report that this is not the case in Cuyahoga County.

Economic uncertainty may contribute to the hostile climate toward the homeless and disadvantaged. Some people see their own fears manifested in the misfortune of others, causing them to react with anger or hatred instead of compassion.

Still, Andolsen is hopeful for the future. She believes it starts with the efforts of one individual at a time. She strongly encourages letter writing to public officials. Whatever can be done, each level of involvement is important.

Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine published Spring 1996 – Issue 15