Navigating the maze of SSI with ASSIST

by Oct 11, 2022

Mellani Calvin describes the process of getting Social Security benefits as “a fortress of services for people with disabilities with a moat full of alligators to swim through for the front door.” She and her team get people to the front door. The ASSIST (Assertive SSI Service Team) office on Barbur Boulevard. in Southwest Portland is a hub of purpose with staff focused on phone calls, paperwork, meetings, and reading medical records. This team works diligently to acquire Social Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSD) benefits for clients who are physically, emotionally or mentally disabled. Many of the people served by ASSIST are experiencing homelessness in addition to living with significant mental illness.

Sitting on a couch with her dog at the ASSIST office is sixty-year-old Shelley. She is surrounded by kind faces and support from the ASSIST benefits specialists and caseworkers. At nineteen years old, Shelley was hit by a drunk driver. She suffers from PTSD, injuries and chronic pain, exacerbated by a work-related injury and then a fall in 2011. This left her disabled and unable to work. Through a series of events she became homeless in October 2021. “Helpless is one thing but feeling hopeless is another level of loss,” Shelley says about her situation.

Shelley slept outdoors, on couches, anywhere she was allowed to stay. She eventually had a car to shelter in until she found housing. Thanks to Washington County Housing Authority (a program funded by the Supportive Housing Services tax) and the Easter Seals Oregon housing navigation program, she received a housing voucher. She was referred to the ASSIST program from a senior center where she was charging her phone. With steady encouragement from her caseworker at ASSIST, Chase, she found an available apartment, filled in the application, and provided the required documentation. Chase is a keen listener, soft spoken and attentive to his client’s progress. The process was complicated, and Shelly tried not to get her hopes up, but with Chase’s help she was able to move into her new apartment on July 26.

Now that Shelley is housed, she can work with Chase toward receiving SSI/SSD. Her case is currently at the initial stage for getting SSI/SSD, and ASSIST has been waiting for five months for it to be reviewed for medical eligibility. When that decision is made, it will then go through a non-medical eligibility review at a separate office, adding more months of wait time. Despite the arduous process, Shelley says “Nothing in life is that easy and patience is important.”

Mellani Calvin, the driving force of ASSIST, is an official non-attorney disability representative (one of approximately 500 in the country). Over the last twelve years since she started the program, they have accessed 42.6 million dollars in disability benefits for clients. ASSIST served 55 homeless clients last year and many more on the verge of homelessness or doubled up with family or friends. There are an average of 120 active cases in the office at one time.

About a half million people apply for Social Security benefits yearly, but nationally 22 percent get benefits without having to appeal a denial at first. Everyone has 60 days to appeal an SSA denial, and if there is no appeal within that time, SSA closes the claim. If someone files an appeal in time, the case goes to the Reconsideration stage of review, which can take another six to eight months. Compare this to about 72 percent going through ASSIST receiving benefits without being denied at all.

Mellani treats her team of “warrior angels” like family. She describes herself as the “bossy big sister” and often provides meals for them. Mellani has created a nurturing and welcoming office space with natural light, comfy chairs, and bright colors. A gong sits on a table; when someone’s benefits come through, staff members ring it.

Maya, who Mellani describes as the administrative backbone of the organization, has worked here for about six years. She primarily collects medical records and sends them to SSA, but her role entails much more than that. All of her work goes a long way toward helping the benefits specialists with their case work. Maya says that the ASSIST team is one of the tightest support systems in her life.

Benefits specialist Bianca shares that she wouldn’t work here if it wasn’t rewarding. She points out that “We have to work with such a broken system. We have to work together; if we were broken we couldn’t do this.”

To be eligible for SSI/SSD, clients must prove that they cannot do simple, unskilled, sedentary work for at least twelve consecutive months. ASSIST provides medical records as evidence to support the diagnosis and claim of disability. This can be challenging when clients have been homeless. SSA gives a deadline and a list of documents needed while offering no help in obtaining it. People with serious illnesses are left to completely fend for themselves throughout the process. And sadly, most medical records do not always speak to how a person could function on the job. So essentially, the people reviewing the records are left to guess how someone who is sick with any illness can function on a job. It’s a very murky system.

SSA offices are severely understaffed, and a hold on the phone can take hours and calls on hold are often dropped. The SSA system is replete with paperwork and information barriers, often resulting in claims that are never completed. People often give up when they have no help. Medical records and W-2 tax forms for those with disabilities are often hard to track down or nonexistent. The process can take years. In Mellani’s words, “It should never be this hard for Americans with significant disabilities to get the financial stability they so desperately need.”

“We are barrier busters. We do not take no for an answer,” emphasizes Mellani. “It is a front-loading, proactive approach streamlined to push each case through the complex system of the Social Security Administration. We try to fill as many holes in the process as possible.”

ASSIST treats every case like a court case; they collect letters from family, previous employees, doctors, and professionals. The team of “warrior angels” get extremely comprehensive with paperwork. Most people that get denied can appeal, and this is the point at which someone usually gets a disability attorney. That attorney will be paid by SSA if they win the case. ASSIST aims to bypass all that so that they don’t have to enter the years-long appeal process. Mellani says, “our cases are prepared from the start as if we are going in front of a judge.” It takes an average of eight months to get SSI/SSD benefits to people without appeal right now. With the appeal process, it will literally take years to receive benefits.

The team meets people where they are. They sometimes go to homeless encampments and even work with police to get messages to people so they can set up meetings to help them. The staff have been in chemo treatment rooms, dialysis centers and even attend medical appointments with clients.

“So many have lost part of their life; their family and dignity. We are often the last resort. So many clients say you treat me like a whole person. So many systems devalue and dehumanize them. We bring their lives back into focus. Now they have choice and power in the community. We learn and we grow. It’s organic.” says benefits specialist Devi.

Mellani says, “We turn this system inside out. We see our work as a big missing social service. Social Security has grown to appreciate us because they have learned over time that we get things done and that helps their outcomes too. We spend about 60 hours on a case for a person experiencing homelessness.”

After working here for three months, Mady, another administrative staff member at ASSIST, sums up the process of getting someone the benefits they deserve, “The perseverance of people on this team is amazing and beautiful to see. It can be so frustrating and emotionally taxing. The strength of the people we serve is indescribable. Some struggle for decades, for the majority of their lives, fighting every day for a chance.”

With her ready smile and kindness, Shelley is well-liked by other residents at her apartment building. She is working on her physical pain and injuries. She is sleeping well in her new home and ready to tackle the work ahead of her, confident that the ASSIST team will be on her side.

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