Sunday, February 24, 2008

Falling Through The Cracks

During the years of the Bush administration, we've heard a lot about "faith based initiatives" --- in other words, private charities, created and sponsored by churches and other religious groups, where the primary or sole emphasis is on social services for people with various material needs, as well as intangible needs such as the need for rehabilitation related to substance abuse.

Now, I'm all in favor of making it easier for faith-based charitable organizations to do their work. However, I'm also in favor of continuing to offer secular, government services to the needy. After all, when it comes to such services, unbelievers benefit from such services just as much as believers. Wealthy unbelievers have social responsibilities, too. Obviously, such unbelievers rarely contribute significant amounts of money to churches, so the continuation of governmental social programs helps to insure that such people bear at least some of the burden of helping needy people. One can be a political conservative, as I am, and still understand this principle.

In any event, even when one takes both religious and governmental social services into account, there are still numerous unmet needs in our society. One of the reasons for that fact is that many people, having been made aware of the existence of various programs for the poor, tend to assume that the various programs, when put together, are quite adequate for the purpose of meeting all legitimate needs.

That might be the case, if the various programs were structured in a sufficiently flexible manner that they could accommodate all crisis situations and needs. But that's rarely the case.

Those who administer such programs, whether faith-based or otherwise, are often forced to add all kinds of requirements and exclusions in order to placate taxpayers and supporters who fear that their funds might be used for the purpose of supporting indolent, irresponsible people. While such fears might be understandable to some extent, the end result is that people who are in need for legitimate reasons must often jump through all kinds of hoops in order to qualify for help; and even then, success is far from guaranteed.

For some reason, there seems to be a disproportionate emphasis on food in this country when helping the poor. There are numerous programs, both public and private, for feeding the poor. But the Bible states, correctly, that man does not live by bread alone. In addition to spiritual needs, people have numerous material needs which have nothing at all to do with food.

The most obvious need is for adequate housing. If you look at the amount of money the average family spends on basic needs, the money which is spent on rent or mortgage payments is often higher than any other expense, unless that family happens to have one or more members with serious illnesses which require extraordinary medical expenditures.

But whereas food stamps are offered in some form in virtually every state, housing assistance sufficient to prevent eviction in the event of extended periods of unemployment, where people have either exhausted their unemployment insurance benefits or been denied such benefits, is often woefully inadequate or nonexistent.

Without adequate housing, food stamps and canned food donations are almost pointless. What's the point of going grocery shopping, if one has no place to store such groceries or to prepare meals?

I make these observations as someone who is currently facing the possibility of eviction.

I spoke with a friend yesterday, and he suggested that I look into the possibility of supplemental income. But the only types of supplemental income I can seem to find are those in the following categories:

General Assistance (GA) from IDHS (Illinois Department of Human Services): This is the only IDHS cash assistance for which I might conceivably be qualified, because I am single (so I don't qualify for TANF) and I don't qualify as "aged, blind or disabled", so I don't qualify for AABD assistance. Moreover, when I read the IDHS requirements for GA, I discover that they have to decide that an applicant is "not employable" in order to grant GA to an applicant. The only thing I can see on their list which gives me hope that they might decide in my favor is that I regularly take a number of medicines in order to control hypertension. (I only started doing that last year, interestingly enough. I'd never had high blood pressure before, to my knowledge, but it was through the roof when I saw an optometrist last summer to get some new glasses.)

Even if one can get it (and that isn't certain), GA is limited to $100 a month (which is unlikely to satisfy the judge when I appear before him in eviction court). But every little bit helps, I suppose.

One correction: I just noticed that they have another program, called Earnfare, which could add another $294 a month to my overall income. As I read the requirements, it would seem that participation in that program would require that I work (at minimum wage) for the food stamp benefits which I currently get without working. But hey, $294 would make a substantial difference in my overall income, and might prevent me from falling further behind on my rent, if combined with a monthly payment which I receive from another source.

One problem: Earnfare and General Assistance would seem to be mutually exclusive. GA requires that they declare that you're unemployable. By definition, if you can work at one of their Earnfare jobs, then you're employable.

If forced to choose between the two, I'd obviously rather have the $294 than the $100. But $294 isn't very much. Such a monthly income would help to keep me from falling further behind on my rent, but it wouldn't make much of a difference in terms of catching up on the rent which the Lawson House YMCA claims that I owe.

SSI and SSDI: Both of these forms of assistance can be substantial, but I've already explored this option. SSI and SSDI benefits are basically for disabled people. The only way I could persuade the IDHS folks that I was disabled would be to persuade them that depression over my prolonged period of unemployment was serious enough to prevent me from being able to work. I have in fact experienced depression in connection with that fact, to the extent that I sought counseling and antidepressants from Northwestern Memorial Hospital during the months from September 2008 until very recently.

On the advice of a friend, and also on the advice of my general physician, I applied for such benefits last Fall, thinking that the receipt of the same might possibly solve my immediate financial problems. But I'd heard that disability benefits connected with depression could be very difficult to obtain. Sure enough, after a long period of deliberation, the case adjudicator contacted me and informed me that my petition had been denied. As I see it, I have received very few tangible benefits in connection with the "treatment" I have received at Northwestern, and it's even arguable that the substantial time I've spent going to the various appointments they've scheduled me to attend has made matters worse for me, since time spent in such pursuits has substantially reduced the amount of time available to me for the purpose of seeking employment. I could appeal the adjudicator's decision, but even if the appeal went in my favor (which seems somewhat unlikely), it's unlikely that such a reversal would happen soon enough to prevent eviction from my apartment.

Yesterday, my friend (Joseph Hollingsworth) suggested that I look into the funds which might be available as a result of the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008. That sounded promising to me, so I looked up more information on the Web to see what I could find. (Joseph didn't know the exact name of the program when he spoke with me, so it took a little bit of digging on my part.) Unfortunately, I once again ran up against a situation where the government had built certain exclusions into the program. Specifically, in order to benefit from the program, applicants must have earned at least $3,000 during 2007. Since I lost my job in January 2007, I wasn't working long enough to have made that much money while working for my last employer. (I'll have to look at my tax forms to confirm that such is the case.)

Of course, I did receive unemployment insurance payments during 2007, and I know that the IRS considers such payments to be taxable income, so it's possible that having received such payments will mean that I'm qualified to receive the ESA benefit. I definitely plan to explore that option, because every little bit helps. Unfortunately, in this case, the word "bit" would seem to be appropriate. My friend thought that single people making less than a certain amount were eligible for a benefit of $700. He may have been thinking of people with children, because my own reading of the text suggests to me that the most I'll be able to get from the ESA is $300 even if I'm qualified.

It isn't clear how long one would have to wait before getting such benefits, and it isn't clear as to whether or not my landlord would be willing to wait that long.

Another potentially big problem: While I was working in early 2007, I was paying taxes via payroll deductions. But I don't think I had taxes deducted from my unemployment insurance benefits when I was receiving them in 2007. (I thought that surely I would have gotten a job before now, after all.) If I'm correct in thinking that that's the case, then I may actually owe income taxes to the IRS. That could potentially prevent me from getting any tax refund, and it could even cancel out part or all of the ESA benefits! I hope not, but I have to consider that possibility.

Obviously, I need to pull out my tax forms and sit down to figure out my taxes ASAP so that I have a better idea how I stand in that regard.

The point of all of this is that I am trying to leave no stone unturned when it comes to finding a way to satisfy my landlord so that I can avoid eviction. But it may not be enough.

If it's not enough, I can only pray that one or more kindhearted Christians will help me in tangible ways (such as temporary lodging in a spare room, if necessary), so that I can pursue the ministry vision which I firmly believe the Lord has given to me.

I'll be the first to acknowledge that my skills as a financial manager leave something to be desired, but if you will take the time to read the various previous entries on this blog, and if you'll visit to check out that site, I think you'll have to agree that I do not in any way, shape or form fit the "profile" of a typical homeless person. I am not addicted to substances of any kind (other than food, oxygen and the other things to which all people have "addictions"). I have very few problems which would not be cured or substantially reduced by furnishing me with an adequate income. I am not perfect, but I should not be allowed to fall through the cracks. I should not have to abandon my dreams.

Mark W. Pettigrew
30 W. Chicago Avenue
Room 1212
Chicago, IL 60610

(773) 509-8126

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