Illustration by David Serota

Illustration by David Serota

Poor and disabled applicants for Supplemental Security income (SSI) often wait for years to begin receiving a small monthly stipend from the federal program. Some become homeless, others die before being approved.

A group of lawyers, representatives from non-profit organizations, beneficiaries and lawmakers gathered at the Wilson Building Oct. 9 to discuss common barriers to approval and ways to streamline the process of obtaining SSI.

Many spoke of the importance of preserving a small but important city-funded safety net program that helps tide over SSI applicants while they wait for approval.

The Interim Disability Assistance (IDA) program provides $270 a month – or about $9 a day.- do residents who are in limbo – unable to work and waiting to learn if they are approved for SSI.

“IDA, although not much, helps you maintain your dignity,” Brian Powell, IDA beneficially said at the forum, which was co-sponsored by DC Coty Councilmember’s Mary Cheh and Jim Graham.

Though city funds are used to pay the IDA stipends, they are partially reimbursed by the federal government. In fiscal year 2014, the city has budgeted slightly over $2 million for IDA, enough to help an estimated 979 people, according to Kate Conventry, a policy analyst for the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.

But according to city budget documents, funding is down significantly from the more than $6 million appropriated for the program in 2009.

Applicants for SSI must complete a long written application and often must undergo special medical examinations to determine eligibility.

Yet, there are further levels of proof and documentation that are also frequently required, lawyers at the forum explained.

“Often times the D.C. Government will see someone with schizophrenia, but unless they see the medical record, they could get denied,” Carolyn Perez Associate at Akin Gump said.

In many cases, Perez explained, a person with schizophrenia does not keep track of their paper work, so it takes triple the time when working with them, and then there is still the chance they could get denied.

Many IDA recipients go through several rounds of appeals, and SSI is still not guaranteed.

During the process, IDA can help sustain applicants through the long appeal process, and help them stay out of shelters and emergency rooms, which end up costing the city more, some forum participants observed.

Brian Powell said that IDA had helped to keep him safely housed.

“Because of that (IDA) I was able to get in to a supportive housing unit,” Powell said.

Nationally, just one-third of SSI applicants are approved upon initial application, participants said. Getting assistance with the application process can help. Locally, organizations including the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, Pathways to Housing, Miriam’s Kitchen, and So Others Might Eat, offer such support.

Another program, called SOAR, SSI SSDI Outreach Access Recovery, specifically targets people who are homeless, battling mental illness, or simply do not have a mailing address.

“Most of our folks are declined on technical issues (paper work) before the medical records are even looked at,” said Christine Elwell of SOAR.

According to SOAR, fifteen percent of homeless people who applied on their own got approved while with SOAR’s help, eighty to ninety percent of applicants were successful.

Larry Tanenbaum, of Akin Gump, explained that often homeless applicants miss important hearing on their cases because they have no address and never receive the notices.

“The bench my client sits on doesn’t have a fax machine…” Tanenbaum said.

A man named Wayne who attended the forum spoke of the experience firsthand, and he did not hide any of his frustration. With two hip replacements leaving him dependent on a cane, he said he was denied benefits and due to the situation has been homeless for two years.

“The city is deteriorating because of the homelessness. I’m tired of this, I don’t know what to tell my child,” he said.