The federal government defines poverty as an income of $11,490 for a single person – slightly less than $1,000 a month. That’s a pretty harsh definition, especially when you consider that, according to the National Realtors Association, the average rent for a one bedroom apartment in Thurston County is $789.
But people who are permanently disabled, can’t work, and don’t have family to support them must live on even less. Our safety net has become so threadbare that disabled adults are sentenced to poverty for life with no parole. Their only source of income is $733 a month from a federal program call Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, plus food stamps.
It can take two or more years to work though the process to apply for and get SSI. During this long wait, the state’s Aged, Blind and Disabled program, administered by the Department of Social and Health Services, provides SSI applicants with an income of $197 a month if the state believes the application will ultimately succeed.
This $197 benefit exists not because state budget-writers have hearts of gold, but because the federal government reimburses the state when applicants succeed at getting SSI.
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No one, obviously, can actually live and pay rent for even a single room on $197 a month. So it is no wonder that people with long-term disabilities swell the ranks of our community’s homeless population. Many suffer from mental illnesses, which can make navigating the long SSI application process extremely difficult. DSHS helps people with their applications, but it usually takes a dedicated (often volunteer) advocate to help people start this long process and see it through.
Many of the homeless we see on our streets are stuck in this waiting game – waiting for applications to be processed, waiting for a hearing, waiting for income benefits.
People can also spend a long time waiting for an opening in a subsidized housing program, where rent is usually 30 percent of whatever income they might have, even if that means 30 percent of nothing. There is an acute shortage of subsidized housing where people with disabilities can get the support they need.
As people wait, they often get sicker. In the desperate and disorganizing circumstance of homelessness, drugs and alcohol are a daily temptation that can land people in jail. Making and keeping doctor’s appointments is also a challenge, so people tend to use hospital emergency rooms more.
After all this waiting, when a benefits hearing or a housing opening finally comes up, it is sometimes impossible to find the person who has waited so long, sleeping in alleys or in the woods. Then the process has to start all over again. The despair gets deeper, and the disabilities worsen. Some people become habituated to homelessness, and just give up.
These are harsh realities our state legislators ought to keep in mind as they think about funding for mental health services, income support, and housing. No matter how difficult the state budget situation is, mending our tattered safety net should be a high priority.
It’s the right thing to do for people in need, and critical to reducing the number of homeless people we see on our streets.