As State Cuts Aid, a Scramble to Get Benefits for Homeless

July 9, 2010

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Jesse Mata lives underneath the Stevenson Expressway. Outreach workers are trying to help him find his social security number so he can get benefits. (WBEZ/Gabriel Spitzer)
Illinois' governor announced drastic cuts to social services last week. So agencies are scrambling to link up needy people with more reliable help. As states cut back, one federal program has been a backstop for the poor and disabled for decades. A team in Chicago is trying to lock in that assistance for the city's most vulnerable – homeless people with mental illness. But actually getting them the help just might take a law degree.

Thousands of homeless people in Chicago are eligible to get $674 every month from the feds. Theoretically, that's enough to get into housing, buy food, get a bus pass. It's called Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. Since the 1970s it's helped keep people with disabilities out of utter destitution. And yet, most of Chicago's homeless don't collect the money.

PARSONS: The application process is cumbersome. It's very complicated.

Lisa Parsons is an attorney with Health and Disability Advocates. She says homeless people don't just live in the margins physically, they also fall through the cracks of official record-keeping. They have no address to get letters from the Social Security Administration and they have scanty medical records.

PARSONS: Because they don't have access to medical care, they often have undocumented conditions, which makes it very difficult to establish a record which shows you're disabled. I mean it's really why so many clients are on the street and not getting the benefits they need.

And if there's one thing you need to get help from the U.S. government, it's a paper trail. That's why a lawyer like Parsons isn't working on policy or lawsuits, she works full time helping homeless people navigate the bureaucracy. Last year her team reached about 240 people, getting benefits for almost 90.

Parsons works in tandem with social worker Anne Leto. Today, Leto tags along with a couple of outreach workers – Eric Swiecke and Mary Esler of the organization, Thresholds. Their first job is to find people … many of whom would rather not be found.

LETO: We are going to see a gentlemen who's been … he's been outside for like 8 years, is that right?

SWIECKE: Yeah something like that.

LETO: And he's living under a bridge. Uh, what area would you say?

SWIECKE: Kinda like the north end of Bridgeport.

The guy's name is Jesse … or maybe Alejandro. It's not totally clear. Mary Esler says he's forgotten his social security number – which as far as the government is concerned, means he's dropped off the earth.

ESLER: We don't know who he really is. He doesn't know who he really is. It's like he doesn't exist.

SPITZER: Yeah, this is kind of this interesting little overgrown space that's got this really serpentine highway network that's kind of all going around it. But it's a little no-man's-land here in the neighborhood.

SWIECKE: Right now it's not too bad under here, but during the winter it's a horrible place.

Eric Swiecke says last winter, construction workers found Jesse almost totally buried in snow, unable or unwilling to get free. They dug him out. Today it's warm, and Jesse is reclining on a mattress under the overpass. His space is outfitted with a portable radio and stacks of trash. A five-gallon bucket with a toilet seat sits off a ways. Traffic rumbles by on I-55, just a couple feet above his head.

LETO: So I know that you and I talked, I think was it last January or something about trying to get your social security benefits started. And I know its been kind of difficult just because of trying to find your social security number.

MATA: Old man Daley had the youth summer program? I had to use my social security there. They got a record. This Daley, he got it in the basement somewhere.

The outreach team often has to reconstruct a person's life in documents, from foster care, schools, hospitals – it's like building a whole legal case. But Jesse's memory is pretty erratic. The one thing he recalls clearly is his prison number – maybe the team's best hope to track down his identity and get him some help.

LETO: What's it been like for you out here?

MATA: It's like 150 years ago. It's like the same way, which is, you gotta hunt.

Years of living like a hunter-gatherer have taken their toll on Jesse. Anne Leto takes clinical notes about his disorientation, scars from head trauma, his self-neglect – it's all evidence. To get SSI, people have to prove they're disabled and not, say, lazy … or simply addicts. SSI used to cover people with substance abuse disorder. But that changed in 1996 -- to disastrous effect, says attorney Lisa Parsons.

PARSONS: Many of them lost their benefits. Of course when you lose your benefits, you lose your housing. And also when you lose your benefits, you lose your access to medical coverage. And so their conditions deteriorated, and many people became homeless.

Mental illness often goes hand-in-hand with drugs and alcohol. So people have to show the illness is primary, that they'd still be disabled even if they got clean. Advocates say that's a tall order for a lawyer, let alone a mentally impaired homeless person.

BROWN: I'd applied twice, and I was denied both times. I really didn't understand, they didn't give you any particular reason. They just said that it was their determination that I was not disabled.

This is Vallejo Brown. She spent much of the last 10 years homeless, addicted to crack, dealing with schizophrenia and PTSD. Then, at a church in 2008, she met Lisa Parsons.

BROWN: She saw something. That if you just take care of the fundamentals: having a income, having a roof over a person's head. You know those changes – it's not everybody, but the majority. They don't want to be down a hole that they can't get out of, because no one is saying here, grab my hand.

Vallejo Brown now takes meds to quiet the voices in her head. She's been sober for 9 months. She hasn't been this stable in decades.

BROWN: This is the dining room, actually. And this is the living room, so we kind of split it off so it kind of looks like two separate rooms. And I have to show you this.

Brown lives in a small Rogers Park apartment. The day we talk is her one-year anniversary there. She barely affords it, splitting rent with the steady girlfriend she met in a treatment program. But it's a home, and a source of dignity.

BROWN: I look forward to going to the mailbox now and actually having a bill with my name on it. You know, a lot of people say oh, man, it's another bill. But when you haven't had bills, I have not had bills, I haven't had my own apartment since '89. I feel secure that I have keys to my place. I feel worthy now.

With less state and local money to go around, it gets tougher for people like Brown to prove they're worthy. It takes documents, persistence, and in some cases, a savvy lawyer.