Homeless clients need help to get help from disability benefits
October 30, 2017 | By Samantha Swindler
Of the 4,000 people living on the streets in Multnomah County, more than half have serious mental illness and more than a third have physical disabilities.
You’d think many of these people could qualify for disability income help from the government.
The short answer is they probably could.
The reality is the more disabled they are, the harder it is for them to pursue benefits.
This is where Mellani Calvin comes in. In April 2010, she founded the nonprofit ASSIST, which stands for “Assertive Supplemental Security Income Service Team.” From a small office in Southwest Portland, the five-member staff works with indigent or homeless clients seeking to qualify for disability benefits.
To date, ASSIST has served 465 clients and won benefits for 284 of them. They have 99 more cases pending.
“Our clients are very complex cases, they’re the cases most attorneys don’t like to take,” Calvin said.
Calvin is certified to act as a non-attorney representative in disability claims cases. She founded the nonprofit after working for a similar program run through Central City Concern. A benefits team there works specifically with clients who live in Multnomah County, but Calvin knew the need extended beyond the county line. Her team works throughout the metro area, with an emphasis on outreach in Washington County.
While there are many social services agencies that provide food or shelter for those on the streets, few specialize in this kind of work.
There are two pots of money for people unable to support themselves by working. Social Security Disability Insurance is for people who paid Social Security taxes from their paychecks and need to draw their share early because severe disabilities prevent them from employment.
The second pot, Supplemental Security Income, is a needs-based program for people who have never been able to work or who have been unable to work for a long time. At most, Supplemental Security Income payments for an individual are $735 a month.
About half of Calvin’s clients receive Social Security, and half receive Supplemental Security Income.
Few diagnoses, like certain types or stages of cancer, will automatically qualify an applicant for assistance. But nearly everything else will depend on the applicants’ age, education, work experience and medical history. All these elements come together for a final judgment call: Can this person earn wages in the general job market?
The application process for either is drawn out and complicated, designed to make sure only the truly qualified receive benefits. But the consequence of this is that some of the neediest people can’t get help on their own.
That was the case for one 47-year-old client who, with his mother, recently met with Calvin in her office. The client, who had been homeless for about 20 years while moving between different states, didn’t want his name used.
“We never knew what happened to him,” his mother said. “We couldn’t track him through his Social Security number because he wasn’t working, and he was also using a different name, and so all our trying to investigate and find him, we couldn’t find him. He was just anonymous out there.”
She eventually learned her son had untreated paranoid schizophrenia, and he’d most recently been sleeping on a park bench near Memphis, Tennessee.
He spoke softly, in halting sentences.
“I thought I would apply for Social Security and I never got through it,” he said. “It was hard sticking to it. I don’t remember what the year was when I first applied. My memory isn’t that good on the dates, what I was doing at different times.”
Around Christmas of last year, a man working with the homeless learned his name and tracked down his family in Oregon. His mother flew him back home and helped him get housing with a family member and health care. But she needed help getting his disability benefits.
“They ask you kind of redundant questions, you don’t really know what they’re wanting,” his mother said.
Forms ask for both parents’ Social Security numbers, documented medical histories and 15 years of work history. One question asks, confusingly: “If you were unable to work because of illnesses, injuries or conditions before age 22, do you have a parent who is age 62 or older, unable to work because of illnesses, injuries, or conditions or deceased?”
Imagine a disabled, chronically homeless person working through this paperwork.
“People who are really in need, they can’t do it, there’s no way,” his mother said. “That’s why he spent 20 years without help, without income, without mental help, any kind of medical help.”
This client enrolled in ASSIST on April 28 and was approved for $435 in monthly benefits by Aug. 1.
That’s a remarkably quick turnaround. For someone approved for benefits, it can take up to six months to receive them.
The General Assistance Program in the Department of Human Services aims to help bridge that time gap. The program, created by the Oregon Legislature last year, essentially provides loans for homeless or insecurely housed people while they wait for disability income. It also helps them apply for benefits.
Since its creation in July 2016, about 60 people have gotten federal disability benefits through the program, while another 102 are currently enrolled.
Erika Miller, who manages the General Assistance Program, said her clients wait at average of 187 days for their benefits. In the meantime, her program provides them with up to $695 a month for utilities, housing and incidentals. The fund is reimbursed when Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance back pay is received.
“We get five to 10 new referrals every day,” she said. “There’s quite a need.”
Nationally, the percentage of people applying for disability income is increasing, and there are numerous factors for it. The understanding of what it means to be disabled has expanded to include more mental health diagnoses. The workplace landscape is changing, so someone able to perform only the most menial labor might qualify for benefits if there are no more menial jobs to be found.
Some people legitimately don’t need services, but the Social Security Administration doesn’t have the resources to adequately investigate fraud.
The social safety net is massive, and so are its flaws. Yet Calvin and Miller have found a way to strengthen one corner of that net, by providing a source of income for people with disabilities who are on the street or on the brink.