By Colleen Sinsky
Doing this work effectively involves pouring your soul in and riding alongside our folks through their highs and lows. In the harsh world of homelessness and housing advocacy, the “lows” unfortunately tend to be common and severe (for example... the majority of these blog posts). So it is such an amazing gift when I really get to genuinely celebrate with my folks. This week a very long-time JOIN friend, Brenda was finally awarded social security after years of being too disabled to work. Brenda spent her entire adult life doing the most labor-intensive jobs and is constantly talking proudly about her work in construction, the military, fighting wildland fires and commercial fishing. Unfortunately, the social security system is a difficult one to navigate and it’s not uncommon at all for deserving applicants like Brenda to face denial after denial with long wait periods and lots of paperwork in between. Fortunately, JOIN has some amazing community partners like the BEST team, BAC and the law offices of George Wall who heroically advocate for our folks to receive their benefits and help build a strong case.
In Brenda’s case, we referred her to George Wall after she received her first two denials from social security. At that point, the case goes to a social security disability hearing and a lawyer has to get involved to organize records and advocate effectively through the system. During this time (which takes many years) folks are generally living on zero-income. Occasionally, as in Brenda’s case, we’d managed to get her on one of a very few “Shelter Plus Care” vouchers whose funding supports an apartment, utilities, a basic cell phone and “Honored Citizen” monthly bus pass. She received some small monthly allotment in food stamps, and occasionally went canning to pay for prescriptions. We took her to all kinds of medical appointments, often having to help her down the stairs and into the car. Through all of this, Brenda was always so amazingly upbeat and hilarious.. one of few apartments I love to visit and hang out to chat way more often than is probably necessary.
So given this history, we were unbelievably happy last week when, in her appeal hearing the judge awarded Brenda social security, plus a couple thousand dollars in back pay (money awarded based on when an applicant who was initially denied first submitted their application). For someone so conditioned to living on zero-income, this is huge beyond words. As we walked out of the federal building downtown, crybaby me was laughing through happy tears and hugging Brenda and trying to simultaneously text her super longtime JOIN worker, Emily, the good news. Brenda was so ready for another denial that she was still in disbelief that she’d finally been awarded her deserved benefits.
The next afternoon, Brenda and I talked again. Now that she’d had a day to think about it she’d come up with a modest list of what she wanted to spend her money on. Legally, recipients of social security can’t have assets in excess of $2,000 in their account, so there’s this bizarre “spend down” that has to happen once someone receives back pay to get their account balance lower or else their monthly payments will stop. (The econ major in me hates how one-time irresponsible spending is incentivized, but that’s for another post.) Anyways, Brenda’s list included purchases like taking her dog to the vet, visiting her out of state family, getting a new TV, and replacing the only bra that she’s had for a decade. Something about that triggered a lot of the wordless pride and indignation I feel for our folks for whom basic human necessities are beyond financial reach, and seeing Brenda finally able to overcome those limitations and gain confidence as a woman was utterly amazing.
$698 a month isn’t much to live on.. especially once ⅓ is taken out for rent, and more for utilities, but even a modest amount like that is amazingly empowering for someone who’s had nothing for so long. In the future, Brenda is going to have to be very disciplined to stretch that amount to cover expenses, but right now I’m preferring to celebrate this victory with her.