Social Services: Listen to People Who Have Experienced Poverty

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Social Services: Listen to People Who Have Experienced Poverty

(Photo: Luis Felipe Salas/flickr/cc)

In 2009, after caring for a terminally ill parent, I became homeless and destitute due to circumstances beyond my control.

The Unites States Interagency Counsel on Homelessness provides funding to states for programs designed to create permanent housing situations for individuals and families in danger of becoming homeless. All of these programs are administered by local Boards of Social Services—often simply called “social services.” Where I live in Ocean County, New Jersey, the Board provides a motel room for emergency housing through a program called Special Response. Motel owners located on the Jersey Shore subsidize their incomes during the winter months by taking in clients of social services through this program.

So I was in a motel room in a seasonally deserted town I was unfamiliar with and told that I have three months to find permanent housing. I was given a W-9 tax form to present to potential landlords. The W-9 would allow the local housing agency to pay landlords as vendors of the state. However, I soon found out that most apartment owners wouldn’t take me in for three purported reasons: One, the owners claimed that if they took me in then they would be legally obligated to take in any other client that social services sent their way; two, they said that the local Housing Office at social services was unreliable and took forever to pay rents; and three, as I would soon learn myself, they said that the Housing Office was notorious for arbitrarily changing its policy regarding housing assistance.

Most people in a situation like I was in give up and return to whatever it is they were trying to get away from – abusive spouses, dysfunctional families, drug-and crime-infested neighborhoods. And then there are those – such as the survivors of natural disasters, and people who lost jobs and had homes foreclosed during the Great Recession, and veterans who were denied benefits – who have no place to return to and all too frequently end up wandering the streets during the day and setting up tents on public land at night. Because these people are no longer enrolled in any housing program, this is a statistical ‘success’ to local officials administering the program, even as the number of homeless people rises. This cynical manipulation of statistics is a betrayal of the public trust given to the local Board of Social Services to provide financial and housing assistance to members of their communities who need it.

While I was still in my home and recovering from the loss of my mother, I became a member of a small nondenominational church that administered a community homeless outreach program. Local apartment owners utilized the outreach as a way of ‘screening’ prospective renters. They were willing to rent to people who had rent subsidies, but first they wanted to be assured that they are not opening their doors to former rent truants, violent criminals, drug users, or other problematic tenants.

That’s how I secured ‘permanent’ housing within three months. I’m not sure what I would have done without the involvement of this grassroots program that helped me navigate my local housing office’s byzantine process.

But then I received a letter last year informing me that the “permanent” housing program I was in was being terminated by The Board of Social Services in Ocean County. No explanation was given; no recourse offered. Trying to find alternatives before I became homeless, I applied to several federal affordable housing facilities. Miraculously, it seemed, just a few days after being told I no longer had an affordable, permanent place to live, I received a letter informing me that an affordable housing unit was available.

People assume that my local social services board coordinated this move. They didn’t. If you are fortunate enough to find a case worker who assists you with obtaining Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and other basic necessities, as I was, they are still powerless to influence the outcome of your ‘permanent’ housing situation. These types of practices are not only detrimental to the morale of the clients of social services, but to its workforce as well.

We need the people who administer social services at the state and local levels to do a better job of providing programs and policies that work in people’s lives.

When we hear from people who have experienced poverty, we get better policy. For example, no one who has lived in acute financial distress would have ever come up with a solution as inane as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Can you imagine? “Here’s what we’ll do: we’ll make the process of obtaining assistance more complicated and, in the end, provide fewer people with less assistance for a shorter period of time!” Sure, people flew off “the rolls” – and right into the woods, onto subway platforms and, penultimately, into hospital emergency rooms. So many have had their lives cut short as a result of homelessness.

Someone recently asked me what my first priority would be for policy reform, and this is it: lobby to get a member of the community who has experienced programs such as Emergency Housing Assistance, SNAP, or TANF, onto the Local and State Boards of Social Services. This, I feel, is the only way we can begin to get administrators to better understand the needs of their ‘clients’, and to be held more accountable for their policies and actions.

What we need is a movement that empowers individuals who have experienced acute financial distress with the political wherewithal they need to stand on their own. We’ve done this successfully with immigration and marriage equality, why not poverty?

James Abro

James Abro is the author of An Odyssey in the Great American Safety Net, a personal memoir of homelessness and recovery. He is the founder of Advocate for Economic Fairness and 32 Beach Productions.  He works locally with faith-based Homeless Outreach groups, and nationally as an advocate for Homeless Rights.  He is a regular contributor to Rebelle Society and TalkPoverty.

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