I noticed an interesting phenomenon several years ago, the last time I worked in social services, and have noticed it again this year. Most of us in this field are in it because we genuinely care about other people and want to be of service. Along with that comes an unwillingness to be at the "end of the line." Let me explain what this means...
When someone is seeking services (rent assistance, food, gas vouchers, etc), and visits a specific agency, no social worker at that agency wants to ultimately deny services and be at the "end of the line." The thinking goes, if my agency doesn't have that service and/or funding, I will just give you the name of another agency, and they might have it. Because I want to give you something. It feels really awful to say to someone, "I really can't help you, and unfortunately, no one else can either." My agency is often the "end of the line" for a lot of services. We are the largest provider of energy assistance in the state of Colorado, provide a substantial amount of rental assistance, as well as we are one of the only agencies left in Denver that provides assistance with bus tokens. So, we find ourselves in that position a lot. If we can't help you, there is no other agency that is going to be able to help you either.
When I worked at the agency serving homeless women several years ago, I will admit that I was one of those people who pushed clients onto other agencies and let that other organization do the unpleasant work of telling someone that they could just not be helped. Somehow it felt better to be able to offer my clients something, even if that was just a phone number to another agency. However, now being on the receiving end of many of those "referrals", I have a different view. Not only does it put the case manager in a terrible position, but it ultimately does not serve the client either.
On Monday, I had a client that sat all the way through job services orientation, and waited 45 minutes to talk to me afterwards, just to ask if we would pay her car insurance and provide gas vouchers. When I said that our agency did not provide that assistance, and furthermore, no agency in Denver provided those services, she came unglued. Some case workers might attempt to pass this client off to another organization or a church, but that is only wasting the client's time and remaining resources. It is far more compassionate to be honest. This woman was furious with me, and said that because I could not help her, she was going to become homeless. Which is entirely not true, but it doesn't always feel so great.
I have to remember that there are many, many clients every day that I can help. My inability to provide a service in the moment is not going to make someone homeless (they played a role in that themselves a long time ago), and I am called to do the most good for the most people. Pragmatism is a pretty important skill to have in this field. Fortunately, after my difficult conversation with that client on Monday, I had a wonderful client that needed a variety of services that I could actually provide and he was grateful. And that is the way that things usually go. The good and the bad, all mixed together.