A disability program that promises to lift people out of poverty. Instead, it left many people homeless.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — After two months sleeping at the Salvation Army Center of Hope homeless shelter, Margaret Davis couldn’t find an apartment she could afford.

The 55-year-old grandmother receives about $750 a month from the federal government. She’s trying to live on just $50 in cash and $150 in food stamps each month to save enough to call home.

Davis is homeless even though she receives funds from the Supplemental Security Income program, a hard-to-get federal benefit created nearly 50 years ago to lift out poverty-stricken Americans who are elderly, blind, or disabled. .

Davis’ job options are limited because she undergoes dialysis treatment three times a week for kidney failure. As she prepared to spend another night in an overcrowded shelter, she checked her phone to see if a doctor wanted her to amputate her left leg.

“My therapist is trying to help me stay positive but sometimes I just want to end this life and start over,” Davis said.

Homelessness is not a new problem for people receiving supplemental income from the Social Security Administration. But moving recipients out of shelters, crime-ridden motels and tent camps and into stable housing is becoming increasingly difficult, according to nonprofit attorneys, disability advocates and academic researchers.

Rapidly rising rents and inflation are to blame.

But SSI recipients, activists and others said the issue underscored for them how the program itself locks millions of people into housing instability and deep poverty, even as President Joe Biden. has promised to fix it.

“We’re trapping people in a place where dignity is out of reach,” said Rebecca Velas, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank that researches economic equality. He said that the program was started with good intentions. “It’s hard for me to see it as anything other than willful neglect.”

In a country where nearly 1 in 4 residents live with some form of disability, the additional income is intended to ensure that the most vulnerable can afford housing and other basic needs. Most SSI recipients automatically qualify for Medicaid, a joint federal and state program that covers medical expenses for low-income people.

Except for people who are blind or who are age 65 or older, people who prove they have a medical condition that prevents them from working for at least one year can receive monthly payments from SSI. are eligible, which is a maximum of $841. But there’s a catch that makes it hard for people like Davis to see a better financial future. The financial benefit is reduced if a person earns more than $85 a month in supplemental income. And both income and Medicaid benefits are canceled if a person saves more than $2,000, which critics say discourages people from saving.

Advocacy groups say the money recipients receive hasn’t kept pace with rising rent prices.

Davis said the amount she receives each month from the program is about $60 more than the maximum amount offered 10 years ago, when she first started receiving benefits. Yet the average apartment in Charlotte, where Davis lives, now rents for $1,500 a month, up nearly 70% from nearly a decade ago, according to Zumper, which tracks rent prices since 2014. is kept

There’s no way he can afford his dream: an apartment or house in a safe neighborhood where he can spend afternoons crocheting. “I don’t like to talk like this, but I’m not sure what’s going to happen to me,” Davis said.

When Congress created SSI in 1972, the legislation promised that recipients would “no longer have to live on incomes below the poverty level.”

Today, about 8 million people rely on the federal program for income.

Over the past five decades, Congress under both Republican and Democratic leadership has refused to make major changes to the program. Outside the $85 income threshold, for example, is never adjusted for inflation.

The Social Security Administration, which oversees the program, did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the rate determinations.

Biden pledged to reform SSI during his 2020 presidential campaign, saying he would “protect and strengthen economic security for people with disabilities.”

But for seven months Delisa Williams has been trapped in a homeless shelter like Davis. Diabetes, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis have weakened her body, and the stress of living at the Salvation Army Center of Hope is affecting her mental health.

Williams’ only real exit was the combined $881 she received each month from SSI and the Social Security Disability Insurance program, which have similar limits and requirements. He soon realized that most places would not be enough to afford the rent.

“God will see me,” he said. “He didn’t even bring me here for no reason.”

Among developed countries, the United States is one of the most difficult places for people to meet the criteria for disability payments, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a global intergovernmental group created by the United States for Social Welfare. Helped to move forward.

If a person applies for disability income, they may wait months or years to receive benefits. Thousands of people go broke or die waiting for help. An analysis of data by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that from 2014 to 2019, nearly 48,000 people filed for bankruptcy while trying to get a final decision on their disability appeal. The same report says that from 2008 to 2019, more than 100,000 people died while waiting.

The situation worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic as the Social Security Administration closed more than 1,200 field offices across the country and kept them closed for nearly two years.

David Weaver, former associate commissioner for research, demonstration, and employment support, said the decision left millions of needy people unable to receive benefits, as phone lines were jammed with calls and the agency was unable to submit applications online. Does not provide any methods. Social Security Administration.

“The number of SSI awards is just gone,” Weaver said.

Homeless shelters and other nonprofits often help clients apply for supplemental income in the hopes that the money will help them find a place to live. Rachel Mason, a social worker at Tryon Mercy Center in Greenville, South Carolina, has learned to manage people’s expectations.

“Every time someone shows up and says I want to pursue residency, my heart drops a little bit,” Mason said. “I have to be honest and tell them it can be a year to three years. Even if someone wants to rent just one room in the house, it can take their entire check.

As SSI’s 50th anniversary approaches this fall, Congress is deciding whether to make changes to the program.

In an April 2021 letter to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, more than 40 lawmakers asked them to raise cash benefits above the poverty level, increase recipients’ savings amounts, and support loved ones, among other changes. lobbied to end the reduction in help-seeking. . “People with disabilities and older people receiving SSI represent the most disadvantaged members of our society,” the letter said. “History will not forgive us if we fail to meet their needs in our recovery efforts.”

A group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers have now proposed the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act, which would raise the asset limit for recipients from $2,000 to $10,000 for individuals and from $3,000 to $20,000 for couples.

Davis, the woman whose leg could be amputated, is trying to stay optimistic. He began seeing a therapist to deal with depression. He quit smoking to save money for an apartment.

Asked when she might be able to leave the shelter, she said, “I don’t know.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Along with policy analysis and polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.

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