Although many qualify, few homeless people get Social Security benefits


More than one-third of Baltimore's homeless may be eligible for Social Security benefits, but only 4 percent are receiving aid, in part because of an impersonal review system that frustrates the most dogged applicants.

The chain of paperwork takes a minimum of three months if an applicant is approved on the first try. Sixty percent of all applicants have to appeal initial rulings against them, drawing the wait out to more than six months.

Factor in the special problems of the homeless, about one-third of whom are mentally ill, and the difficulty in matching people to services becomes even greater, homeless advocates and Social Security workers agree.

At stake is a $386 monthly check, which could help homeless recipients get off the streets. Social Security now is trying harder to find eligible recipients among the homeless and has awarded 25 grants for experimental programs to find them nationwide, but none in Baltimore.

In an East Baltimore shelter yesterday, Rep. Benjamin Cardin, D-3rd, invited homeless advocates and Social Security representatives to brainstorm how to close the gap.

While they talked about it on the shelter's second floor, Chris House was on the first floor helping homeless men work their way through a formidable pile of forms and authorization papers.

It can be an overwhelming process, especially for people who already distrust government and usually have no permanent address, House said.

"The average time is 45 minutes, maybe an hour and 15 minutes," he said. "It depends on the person. They get a little frustrated halfway though. You really have to work with them at length."

Some clients bail out during the first interview, House said. He also loses a lot of clients during the appeals process. "If you applied for a hearing today, because of the backup in [administrative law] courts, you wouldn't be seen until March."

The government's refusal forms can be especially disheartening, said. "You wouldn't believe what they say. Like they might say, 'You say you can't work, but you have some movement in your hands.' "

House works for a private company, Health Management Associates Inc., which has a contract with the state Department of Human Resources to transfer eligible state welfare clients to the federal rolls. He meets clients in his office on Eutaw Street, but he also goes looking for them -- at Christopher Place on Mondays, Health Care for the Homeless on Fridays.

On an average day, House sees four to five applicants. But even he has limitations -- Health Management's clients must already be receiving a General Public Assistance grant, under the terms of the contract with DHR.

"The state looks at it strictly as a cost-savings," explained Jim Caudle, who joined Health Management in 1988, after working for Social Security 25 years. But the transfer also works to the clients' advantage, he said, because the federal coverage provides more money and better medical coverage.

Caudle, a participant in Cardin's forum, said he likes the idea of a "kinder, gentler" Social Security Administration, but feels the regulations governing disability are designed to work against the applicant.

To receive the benefit, an applicant must be over 65, blind or suffer a disability that will last at least 12 months. Some applicants are turned down initially, Caudle said, because their disabilities don't appear to be sufficiently long-term. People with severe substance abuse problems qualify only if they have other disabilities.

"Social Security has brainwashed everyone with its outreach program," Caudle said after he'd left the meeting. He feels the process is too cumbersome no matter how sincere the agency. "I don't mean that negatively, because it is a positive program."

But the agency's resources may not be up to the task it wants to take on, he said. Union representatives at the forum complained that the downsizing of the agency has decimated the local offices.

And Caudle is convinced the process needs to be overhauled, so that clients can more quickly reach those with the authority to say yes or no. Right now, he said, the first two parts of the application process are simply requests for documentation of financial need and medical disability.

However, Social Security has made some strides in reaching new clients. Lou Inoff, who represented the agency at Cardin's forum, said the rate of applications for the disability benefits was up 10 percent from 1990 to 1989.

An additional 517 applicants per day requested the benefit in the fiscal year that ended Oct. 1, according to Inoff's figures. But the rate of those who actually qualified had yet to be calculated.

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