Three years ago the Illinois Department of Human Services won a grant from the Ford Foundation’s Work Support Strategies program to “streamline” its offices.

The problem: The number of clients was rising as the economy collapsed, and staff had been reduced by 40 percent in recent years. Department officials reported that “families were not being effectively served and staff were overburdened,” according to an assessment by the Urban Institute.

But if you ask staff and clients at DHS’s Northern Office in Skokie today, the “streamlining” effort — piloted in five DHS offices and now set for statewide expansion — has only made things worse.

“We’ve had to add staff,” said Robert Cramer, a caseworker supervisor. “It takes more staff because you’ve got five people doing the work of one.” Meanwhile clients complain of much longer waits in the office, unanswered phones and lost paperwork.

What DHS did was to move from a caseworker system, where one person handled all the needs of a client, to a task-based system, in which workers on different teams handle each step of a client’s case, from intake to processing to verification and determination.

Since no one is responsible for any particular case, “things are getting lost all the time,” Cramer said. With a caseload of 100,000 at the office, he said, “it’s a nightmare.”

“When you don’t have a caseworker, there’s nobody who really knows anything,” said Anne Crowe, a Medicaid client at the Northern Office. “Everytime you go in it’s a new person who doesn’t know anything about your case, doesn’t know you, doesn’t know your situation. With the team system, your paperwork goes to a team and you really don’t know what happens to it.”

“A lot of time people have to come in over and over and over” to get a single problem addressed, said Cramer.

“When I had a caseworker, I could call with a question or make an appointment to see him,” said Crowe. Now a trip to the office involves a long wait in line to be registered and a much longer wait, often two or three hours, just to see someone, she said.

“And forget about calling, you never get an answer,” she said. “I have called and let it ring a hundred times, nobody answers the phone.”

Cramer says the office now has one switchboard operator and two people at a call center to handle all calls. (The Urban Institute says the new system is “reportedly more efficient” than letting caseworkers take calls from clients.)

A large portion of the office’s clientele is elderly and disabled and the Skokie location is not particularly convenient, so problems with the phone system have been a “big issue,” Muir said.

Crowe says she did get through one time, after dozens of attempts. “I was referred to Mr. So-and-So and given a number and his message said, ‘I can’t be reached at this number, please call this other number’ — and it was the number I had been calling all day.”

“We’re not treating people like human beings,” said State Representative Kelley Cassidy at a forum sponsored by the Alliance for Community Services and a number of community and labor groups last month. She said DHS’s efficiency drive “is not only inefficient, it’s inhumane.”

Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.