Project to Streamline Public Assistance for Disadvantaged

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Each year San Diego County spends more than $5.7 million on welfare programs for the families of children attending Hamilton Elementary School in City Heights.

But the lack of coordination between social agencies and the school sometimes keeps public assistance from making a real difference in the downtrodden area.

So when a child doesn't show up for days on end at Hamilton--perhaps because of a crisis at home involving a lack of food, or abuse, or an eviction for lack of rent payment--the school counselor has no easy way to contact the family's welfare worker to work on the problems together. So the many problems continue to fester in the neighborhood.

That's why four public agencies have agreed this week to pursue their New Beginnings project, an audacious and complex effort to redirect the existing welfare bureaucracies to improve the lives of students and their families, beginning with the City Heights neighborhood. An initial study showed that such an effort is sorely needed.

Trustees of the San Diego Unified School District signed off Tuesday on the second phase of the project, which in essence would set up an experimental social services center at Hamilton by next spring where families could go for advice and help on one or more of a whole host of welfare-related problems. If successful, the idea could be used at other schools, to a lesser or greater degree, depending on a neighborhood's needs.

The Board of Supervisors and the San Diego City Council each gave its approval earlier this week, and trustees of the San Diego Community College District is expected to add its support tonight.

The key to a successful center at Hamilton will involve a number of welfare workers--perhaps as many as eight--working with families to make sure they understand what services are available to them and how to arrange transportation, how to minimize paper work and how to enter training and education programs designed to go beyond crisis intervention and get them off welfare eventually.

The center also would offer health care for their children, an important component in getting the children to come to school more often and succeed in their studies. The present school nurse and counselor would work at the center so they could more quickly tie a classroom problem to related family issues.

Officials planning New Beginnings say that costs would probably not increase because the county, for example, already assigns the equivalent of eight workers full time to families in the Hamilton area. But at present, those workers counsel with some families in City Heights near Hamilton as well as with others spread throughout the county.

Under the New Beginnings idea, eight employees would be reassigned so they would work only in the Hamilton geographic area, thus providing a continuity both with the families and the school.

"We've got a long way to go, but it could dramatically change the way public services are provided to those who need them," district Supt. Tom Payzant said Tuesday.

Jake Jacobsen, director of the county Department of Social Services, offered several examples, both ongoing and potential, of how the new collaboration can pay off.

By merging computer data from his department with that from school records, New Beginnings has been able to determine how many residents on welfare have students in city schools. That process saves school employees time and money because they do not have to do separate eligibility tests to find out which students may qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, he said.

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