SSI for the Disabled: Hard to get. Harder to live on.
Danny Lawley is one of the lucky ones. At 49, the man with developmental disabilities lives semi-independently with a roommate at an apartment complex in Fort Myers. Through the week, Grace, his supported living aid, drops by to help with bills or coupon clipping. When the need arises, she helps him to doctor’s appointments or other errands.
He also spends a lot of time just living his life the same as anyone else.
“I like it here,” he said. “It’s close to things. I can play tennis. I like to go bowling with my friend Robert. I like to go swimming.”
Lawley was born in Wachula and lived in group homes for most of his life. The experience, he said, is not something he would like to repeat.
“They were too bossy,” he said.
That may sound like an oversimplification, but Tamela Jenkins, Community Services manager for LARC Inc., the Lee County organization that oversees Lawley’s living arrangements, said the transition from adolescence to adulthood is difficult in group homes.
“It’s not the same for a teenager to be in that environment as it is for a grown man,” she said.
The transition, she said, is equally difficult for adults making the move from group homes to a more independent lifestyle.
Often exacerbating that difficulty is finding affordable housing on the miniscule earnings provided by Supplemental Security Income or SSI. According to the federal government Web site ssa.gov, SSI is a federal income supplement program funded by general tax revenues, not Social Security taxes, designed to help aged, blind and disabled people, who have little or no income. It provides cash to meet basic needs for food, clothing and shelter.
According to Priced Out in 2008, a joint study by the Technical Assistance Collaborative Inc. and the Washington, D.C.-based Consortion for Citizens with Disabilities Housing Task Force, 205,086 adults between the ages of 18 and 64 living in Florida are receiving SSI benefits. Florida ranks fifth in national numbers, trailing only California, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas.
The average monthly SSI payment in 2008 was $668 per month for an annual income of just $8,016, or roughly 18 percent of the national average for a one-income household, and nearly 30 percent below the federal poverty level.
Those numbers factor in the 22 states that supplement the federal SSI payment. In Florida, where the state pays no supplement, the monthly SSI payment is $637 or a mere $7,644 per year.
With disability supplements and stipends, Jenkins said, most of LARC’s client’s receive about $900 per month, and many, like Lawley, have part-time jobs. However, because of the strict earnings limitations placed upon SSI and disability income recipients by the state and federal governments, Jenkins and the LARC staff must carefully monitor how much income everyone in the program receives every year.
“The guidelines are constantly changing, so we must constantly adjust,” she said.
In addition, Jenkins said, disability income recipients must periodically requalify for their benefits by being reevaluated by Social Security Administration-chosen doctors and are at risk of losing their primary, if not their only, means of supporting themselves.
Those rules are also in constant flux, Jenkins said, and the loss of benefits can be retroactive meaning an individual many not only no longer qualify for benefits, effectively losing his or her job, but can be forced to pay back previous received benefits.
That’s never happened to Lawley, but he’s not been without tribulation. Until 2007 he was earning $17 an hour working a 40-hour week at a local cabinet maker. When the business went under it took him about six months to again start receiving his benefits. Thanks to LARC and his roommate Greg, he survived, got a part-time job at a local KMart and was able to stay in his apartment.
“What we are trying to do is, for our guys who are working, is to put them where we can monitor what they do make sure they are OK, but still live as independently as they can,” Jenkins said.
The roommate arrangement has been very successful, she said, because living together allows for the sharing of expenses but also develops friendships and fosters emotional support.
LARC operates residential communities through Lee County to help people with disabilities live in their communities, including a home for six in Cape Coral just off Country Club Boulevard.
In the Cape, the Guardian Angels for Special Populations, a division of the parks and recreation department, stand up for the rights of the developmentally disabled.
The volunteer organization which support programs participants through fund-raising events, grants and donations.
It’s an effort necessitated by the state’s inability to keep up with funding requirements, Special Populations Supervisor Sara Sansone said.
“Monies are available for people with certain developmental disabilities like mental retardation, autism or cerebral palsy and funding is available in these certain areas,” she said. “The state and the federal government both put in money.”
Florida, Sansone said, has not been able to keep up with its end of the funding obligation and has left more then 23,000 people in Florida on a waiting list for needed services.
Services like the supported-living provided by Paula Paquette’s Community Homes and Hearts Inc. In Cape Coral.
“We provide services for the developmentally disabled. We work with adults and provide supported services.
Much like LARC, Paquette and her staff assist individuals in identifying a home in the developmentally disabled would like to rent or lease.
However, just like any new tenant moving into a new apartment, rent is not the only expense.
“Start-up groceries, furniture, all the things that most people take for granted. SSI does not cover the expense of what typically goes into setting up a household,” she said.
Security deposits or first and last month’s rent are also an issue and many, if not all, clients have no credit history.
“There is a start-up fund that they can draw from from Social Security, but it is a one-time thing, once in a lifetime, and once they have drawn from it they can never get it again,” Paquette said.
An alternative is a federal government-funded, but county-orchestrated program known as Section 8 Rental Voucher Program.
When funding is available, it is distributed to counties which them distribute the vouchers.
“They must meet income requirements,” according to Jaimie Ross, president of the Florida Housing Coalition. “Basically we’re talking about the working poor, or people who earn 30 percent or less than the median income of their area.”
If the applicant meets the income requirements and there are enough vouchers to go around, something which Ross says never happens, the renter is paired with a property owner who has agreed to the government’s terms of receiving the fair market rent for the area.
“The renter is only required to pay 30 percent of the family’s income toward rent and the government pays the rest through the voucher,” she said.
However, the Section 8 Housing Vouchers can be very hit or miss at best, Ross said the process to receive the funding can often be long and arduous.
“It’s very difficult. You have to qualify, which means going through your local housing authority which is usually under funded and understaffed,” she said.
The next step, she said, requires waiting for the federal government to pony up funds, as they become available, through the department of Housing and Urban Development.
“When money does become available and the local housing authority has the vouchers, there is usually a small window in which you can come in and apply,” she said.
Competition for the subsidized housing can get fierce. In February, according to reports, an estimated crowd of more than 5,000 showed up at the Robert P. Kelley building in Fort Lauderdale to fill out the 3,000 available Section 8 applications.
Even a completed application didn’t guarantee a place to live as the next step was placement, at random, on a waiting list.
“It’s different from place to place and county to county, but it’s still very, very difficult,” Ross said. “People are very frustrated.”
Even a Section 8 voucher may not be a good alternative for people with development disabilities.
Assuming they qualify for the voucher, are chosen off the waiting list and are matched with a willing landlord, the unit they are eligible for may be in an unsafe neighborhood where someone who is already vulnerable becomes even more so, Jenkins said.
“We don’t need to be putting these people at more risk. The people in charge, Gov. Crist, our legislators, they need to see that budget cuts are affecting real people who are working and productive and contributing,” she said. “They need our help, they don’t need to be ignored.”