Disability Income & Homelessness
Social Security Income and Disability Insurance are critical tools in the fight to end homelessness. They provide the very thing that most people experiencing homelessness need – income. Homeless programs often require some form of income to access subsidized housing. While the majority of people experiencing homelessness work or are looking for work – there are many who have disabilities or illnesses that prevent them from seeking or succeeding in employment. There are few options for these folks. Despite what Fox News would like you to believe, our government isn't handing out wads of cash welfare. Food stamps can put food on the table but don't pay rent. Receiving disability benefits is often the difference between entering housing or languishing on the street.
This week 60 minutes reported that the Federal Disability Insurance Program could become the first government benefits program to run out of money. This could be a huge problem for thousands who are at-risk of or experience homelessness. 60 Minutes reports that the program has ballooned to “12 million people, up 20 percent in the last six years alone”. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is leading a charge to investigate what he believes is a “secret welfare system….that is ravaged by waste and fraud”. An April 2014 Huffington Post piece - The Facts About the Social Security Disability Programs – disputes some of these allegations.
Despite swelling numbers, there are also thousands of people who could benefit from Disability Benefits but aren't eligible or can’t get through the complicated application process. Some conditions aren't considered worthy of benefits. Without this income many of these people become homeless or struggle to move off the street. My mom was one of those people.
It's been nearly three months since my mom passed and yet I still get teary every time I open the box of paperwork I picked up from the shelter she had been staying at. The box is filled with pictures of our family, bus schedules, to-do lists, and cards. It is also filled with hundreds of documents from hospitals, rehab facilities, and clinics. Each states roughly the same thing....my mom was homeless, a chronic alcoholic, and isolated from her family (that’s the hardest part to read). They also say she was well dressed, cognizant and optimistic about the future – e.g. she should stop drinking, pull herself up buy her bootstraps, and get a job. Each lists a half dozen or so different medications prescribed to deal with other physical and mental ailments. A quick WebMD search shows me how many side effects each drug has, especially when taken together. With all of these medications, her existing ailments, and navigating the homeless system – it was unlikely she would be pulling herself up any time soon.
My mom had recently requested the medical paperwork to begin the process of applying for Social Security Disability Benefits. After years of talking to her about this process, she finally agreed that she wouldn't be able to return to work and that these benefits were her best bet at stability. She was denied several times and had her final hearing just weeks before her death. The problem - her primary diagnosis was substance abuse. In 1996, Congress passed the Contract with America Advancement Act which terminated Social Security Income and Disability Insurance (DI) for beneficiaries whose primary impairment was drug addiction, alcoholism, or both.
On the face of it this law makes sense - especially since it was adopted during the Clinton/Gingrich war on welfare. Why give alcoholics and drug addicts benefits? They could stop if they wanted to. Can’t they go to AA and get a job? Here’s a reality check. Substance abuse is often a coping mechanism for stress, injury, and mental health problems. In fact, more than 9 million people suffer from co-occurring disorders - that is they have both a mental and substance use disorder. Sadly, only 7.4% of them receive treatment for both.
It's usually easy to see alcohol abuse (especially when it becomes chronic) but depression, anxiety, and personality disorders are much less visible and the stigma associated far greater. 1 in 4 Americans suffers from mental illness but my mom didn’t know that. Neither did we. My mom came of age in the 70's and 80's ....you didn't talk about your feelings, anxiety, postpartum depression, etc. You put on a happy face and drank when the kids went to bed.
Unfortunately her drinking became chronic and we never talked about mental illness until it was too late. Had her Mental Illness been diagnosed earlier, had her family and medical team seen how severe it was - we may have been able to address it. If mental illness and substance abuse were met with the same compassion we give to someone with a chronic illness, she may have been eligible for benefits and we may have been able to move her off the streets. It would have been far more cost effective for her to have received benefits and housing than to cycle through emergency rooms, jails, and rehabs as she did.
There very well may be fraud within the Social Security Disability Syststem, and we should address it. But I would argue we should spend just as much time developing a 21 century approach to welfare. We need a cost-effective and compassionate safety-net that doesn't discriminate against certain illnesses, and provides financial resources to help the most vulnerable among us become stable.