Freaking out about the possibility of Section 8

November 27, 2015

Life has never been easy or predictable. At one point I thought it was, but back then I assumed I’d have my PhD, be married and have kids by the time I was 30. Now I’m well past 30, I haven’t spoke to that guy in 13 years, there are no kids, and I never did finish the PhD. I have no regrets. I’m just saying, life is unpredictable.

And in case I dared to forget it, the last few hours have reminded me all too clearly.

Life has been less certain than ever since I left my job 4 years ago. I can’t believe it’s been that long. Still, after a ton of work and effort, research, new doctors, new treatments, and fighting with insurance companies, I finally reached a point where I felt I might be able to do a little part time work. I was nervous, but also hopeful. It would be so nice not to have to worry about being on benefits that didn’t cover all the bills.

Today I did some work on that new business. I was feeling really excited about it! At 4pm I was jazzed, telling my mother all about my new plans and progress, outlining some next steps for myself, and imagining the possibility that this might actually work! At 5:30 I decided to check the mail. At 5:35, everything changed.

I had an unexpected letter.

I’m near the top of the waiting list for Section 8, so they want to start getting my paperwork ready and have an interview with me. Holy fuck! What just happened???

For those who don’t know, Section 8 is a housing voucher program. If you earn less than a certain amount, you’re eligible. Typically, you then pay 30% of your rent and the government pays the rest. There aren’t a lot of vouchers and the waiting list is long. When I signed up, I was told the wait was 3-4 years, so I put it out of my head. Whenever it popped back in, I reminded myself that I had a long wait and shouldn’t plan for it. And now, a year and a half later, it seems like it could soon be a reality. Sounds good, right?

Of course, like with anything, there are a few catches. For one thing, if you start earning more, then you lose the Section 8, and I don’t know what happens then. Would I have to move? And to use it in the first place I might have to move, and my choices would be very limited. Not all landlords accept Section 8 vouchers and I don’t know if mine does. Many don’t. Then there’s the problem that there are rental limits, and they’re pretty low for this area, so that makes it significantly harder to find a place.

Of course, this is just what I’ve heard and read. The truth is, I don’t know a lot. I have so many questions, but I got the letter at 5:30pm on a Friday, of course, so I need to wait all weekend before I can call and ask any of them.

So now I’m wondering, is this a good thing? It seems like it should be a good thing. If I’m doing the math right, this would mean I could almost cover all of my bills every month! There would be a small gap, maybe $50-$100 per month, but I could handle that. I get paid for small jobs here and there, and I get birthday and Chanukah checks, so I’m sure that wouldn’t be a problem. And would it be amazing to not have to worry about money?!? Ok, sure, I still wouldn’t have anything extra. It’s not like I could suddenly start eating out more, buying more clothes, or traveling. But it’s not like I really have to do any of those things anyway. So…. maybe this is good?

I’m nervous. I’m so used to things going wrong that it feels like there must be a big catch here that I’m not seeing yet. But then, what if there isn’t….?

If you’re on Section 8, what has your experience been like? What questions should I be asking? What should I know?

 

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Goodbye food stamps

November 26, 2018

Edit 11/27/18: I must apologize to all of you wonderful readers for the errors in the original version of this post. As it turns out, the income limit for food stamps was not cut in half. The person on the phone didn’t know what they were talking about and the appropriate information was missing from their web site (both of these issues have been reported.) So that part is good!

However, I have still lost my benefits for now. The reason is that in determining the income limit, medical deductions are not counted. WTF?!?! My income had gone up, and I am now $20 over the limit. Just $20!!! However, my income has since gone down again, so I can resubmit paperwork to get my benefits reinstated. It’s a lot of effort, but worth it.

But think about how hard it was to learn this. I got a letter with misinformation. I spent 45 minutes on hold to speak with someone who gave more misinformation. I spent the night thinking my benefits were cut off. Then this morning someone called me back and explained it all. Why wasn’t that explanation put in the original letter?! The system is broken in so many ways. Not to mention the part where I lose $172 every month in benefits because my income is $20 too high. If they want people to get off benefits, this isn’t the way to do it, because this just encourages people to earn less so they don’t fall off the benefits cliff! Now back to the original post….

Benefits in the U.S. (and many other places) are majorly screwed up. Today I’ll tell you how I lost my food benefits, which I just learned about a few minutes ago.

When I first became disabled, I wasn’t eligible for the SNAP program (formerly called food stamps) because my assets were too high – meaning I had too much money in the bank. But then they changed that, and I was able to sign up. For 4 years I have received money every month to buy food.

The limits are strict. I can only buy certain kinds of food – nothing from the bakery, for example. And only food – no soap or toothpaste or toilet paper. Still, it helps a lot!

Until this year, I was getting the maximum amount for a single person in Massachusetts. It didn’t cover everything, which was worrisome. I’m small (around 125 pounds) and sedentary. How would someone bigger and more active manage on that small amount? Luckily for me, I have savings, so I used that to make up the difference. Friends of mine went to food pantries. Sucky, but that’s our system.

Earlier this year my benefits were lowered by $20. That sucked, but I knew it would go back next year when I filed my 2018 taxes, showing less income. It still surprised me that with my low income I wasn’t getting the maximum anymore. Again, a very messed up system.

And then yesterday I got a letter saying my benefits were getting cancelled. Part of the reason had to do with me not being disabled. Of course it was a weekend, so I had to wait. In the meantime, I did some research. New guidelines came out on October 1, but even so, I should qualify. So today I called. After 45 minutes on hold, I got someone. She didn’t know much and I had to keep correcting her. Finally, well over an hour after I’d called, it was 5pm – time to quit. She said she or her supervisor would call me back tomorrow. But I’d learned one thing: the income limit she used was half of what I was seeing online. I said that, and she couldn’t explain it. So after we hung up, I did more research.

In many states, there’s no asset limit, but in Massachusetts there is. Here’s how it works: if you’re not disabled, there’s an asset limit (about $2000.) If you are disabled, then there’s a higher asset limit (about $3350) but only if you earn more than a certain amount. If you earn under that amount, you can have any assets you want. If you earn over that amount, there’s an asset cap. A house doesn’t count. Cars don’t count. But money in the bank does count. I have enough in the bank to cause a problem if they look at my assets, but my income was always low enough that it wasn’t an issue.

And I’m glad for that money in the bank! It’s there for emergencies. It pays for medical expenses when there’s a month where they cost more. It will pay for my new car when my current car dies. It pays for a dinner out with friends once a month or a new sweater or two from the consignment shop. It’s what kept me from having to move in with my parents while I waited for over 2 years for SSDI to come through. I worked my ass off for that money in the bank. I spent my career working in nonprofit, which as we all know, doesn’t pay very well. And I was living in Boston, one of the most expensive parts of the country. Saving that money was NOT easy! I cut back on a lot of things to save that money. As my friend Rob said to me a few minutes ago: “You’re being punished for doing everything right except being able bodied.”

Because now that money in the bank counts against me.  But it shouldn’t.

You see, until October 1, the income limit was 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL.) That comes out to $2023. That’s a tiny sum in this part of Massachusetts. Especially for someone who is disabled who could easily spend hundreds every month in health expenses. I was under that amount, so my assets were irrelevant. Then on October 1 they changed the income limit to 100% FPL. That comes out to $1012!

Think about that for a minute. In an area where a 1 bedroom apartment in lousy shape will cost at least $800 per month, the income limit is $1012. So if you earn $1015 and pay $800 for your apartment while you’re on a waiting list for Section 8 housing, you now have $215 to pay for food, medical expenses, transportation, and anything else in your life. It just can’t be done. So you have to dip into your savings. Let’s say your assets are just a bit over the limit, around $4000. How long do you think that will last you? A year if you’re lucky? Probably less. At that point you can now get on benefits. And if you have an problems where you need savings, you have spent them all and you’re now entirely fucked.

Or maybe you earn more. Maybe you earn $2000 and you have $10,000 in the bank. That’s plenty of money, right? Not really. It’s hard to live on $2000 in this area if you’re able-bodied. If you’re disabled, it’s not enough. You’ll have to take money out of savings each month. As soon as you have to pay for a car repair or two, or a couple of large medical expenses, your savings will be gone.

There’s no perfect answer. I get that. But to cut the income limit in half is cruel. To do so without warning anyone is heartless. To send out a form letter that doesn’t explain any of this and just cut off people’s benefits is both.

You know that safety net everyone is always counting on? Watch out, because the holes just got even bigger.


Shining a light on disability-related injustices

June 21, 2018

Yesterday I spoke to a reporter about health-related stuff. This isn’t the first time, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last. I’m also sure it won’t be the last time I bring a new (to them) subject to a reporter’s attention.

Speaking to a reporter used to feel like a big, once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. Not anymore. As I have become more vocal about health- and disability-related issues, mostly on Facebook, friends and friends of friends have connected me with reporters they know who are writing on these topics.

I answer their questions the best that I can. When they plan to use my full name, I’m extra careful. I was clear yesterday that the article – which based on her questions seems to be about the “opioid crisis,” insurance coverage of alternative treatments, and new medications that are about to come on the market – would not be complete without also discussing medical marijuana. I was just as clear that I would not be willing to talk about medical marijuana if she used my full name, but that I would be glad to discuss it in detail without my full name. That’s my comfort level. For other people it’s different.

Still, I told her what I could because I think it’s important that the patient perspective is included. Too often in these discussions we hear from politicians more than anyone else. Sometimes they talk to doctors. But what about the people who are supposed to be benefiting from these medications?

Now here is where it starts to get a bit interesting. You see, we all have superpowers, and my superpower is getting people to open up to me. It happens without me even trying. I guess I inherited this from my great-grandmother. Apparently she would sit next to a stranger on the subway, and by the time she got off the train she knew their entire life story. My grandmother was the same way. So is my mother. I think people are happy to talk to anyone who will earnestly listen and care, which we do.

I also have an insatiable desire for knowledge. I read a lot. I talk to people to learn things. I reach out to others both to learn and because I care about them. And I’m generally sociable. Add that up, and I know a lot of random shit. Including about health and disability issues that don’t directly affect me.

That’s why when the reporter asked me my feelings about new medications containing cannabinoids (active constituents in marijuana), I not only told her my own feelings, but I was able to tell her about the controversy around these new cannabinoid-containing medications to treat children with epileptic seizures. I’m not in that community, and I made it clear she should talk to those folks to get a full, accurate picture. (My understanding is there’s a lot of concern that once these medications are available, they will no longer be able to get medical marijuana for their kids, and if the medications aren’t as effective as medical marijuana – they don’t have to be as effective to be FDA-approved – then they won’t have any good options for their children.) I also offered to connect her to them.

Over the course of our conversation, I told the reporter a bunch of things like this. Like when she asked my views about the problem of primary care physicians prescribing opioids in a one-size-fits-all manner without customizing things to each patient, I corrected her very strongly. I hear that bullshit a lot but, like I told the reporter, I have only ever heard it from politicians. It makes for a good headline, a good soundbite. But I have NEVER experienced that. Neither have my friends. Or the folks who comment on my blog. Or the people in my chronic pain support group. Or the people in the various Facebook groups I’m in. She was surprised and asked a lot of questions about this.

I felt good about correcting these misconceptions. It’s important to correct them for everyone, but especially for a reporter writing an article on this topic in a major newspaper (I won’t mention which newspaper, as part of protecting my anonymity on this blog.)

Now here’s where it gets even more interesting! At the very end, as we were about to say goodbye, I had an epiphany. After writing this post a couple weeks ago, I was able to speak to 2 different lawyers about the SSDI case review. And after we finished, one of them told me some interesting things. This is part of that superpower I mentioned – people just tell me things. And yesterday, I told the reporter.

I told her how the lawyer told me that she (the lawyer) has seen more SSDI case reviews in the last 6 months than in the past several years combined. The reporter sounded shocked. She asked a lot of followup questions.

I also told the reporter that the lawyer told me the number of case denials has increased a lot in the past year. Of course, before mentioning that I first explained how horribly high the denial rate had been before, and the impact it has on many people. Again, she sounded surprised. She asked followup questions. Including, did I think it was related to this current administration. I was clear that while my opinion was yes, that was only my opinion. I hope it’s enough, though, to cause her to dig into this. Because it is shameful that the safety nets we are supposed to rely on aren’t there for us. That’s why I also pointed out that SNAP (food stamps) allotments have gone down while the Section 8 waitlist has gone way up.

It’s possible this conversation will be forgotten in a pile of other upcoming articles the reporter needs to write. Or maybe her editor won’t be interested. Or maybe, just maybe, the reporter and her editor will see the huge impact of these new SSDI case review rates and denial rates, and they will also notice that no one else has been writing about this, so they could scoop the other newspapers. Maybe they will do some research and write it up and bring awareness to their readers that this is happening. And remember how I said this is a major newspaper? Well it’s big enough that if they report on this, all of the others will jump on the bandwagon. And then we might be able to build enough momentum to get the government to stop this fucking bullshit and treat us with the respect and dignity we deserve, by giving us the benefits we already paid for.

Or maybe none of that will happen. But I am trying, and it feels good to try.

Do you guys know of other “hidden” issues like this that we need to shine a light on? Please mention them in the comments or email me at msrants@gmail.com. I’ll do what little I can to publicize these things so they aren’t hidden any more, and I encourage you to do the same!


Defining “affordable”

November 1, 2017

Only a few people know that I live in “affordable housing.” It’s not something that I want to publicize because of the stigma involved. One friend recently asked me what my rent is, and was shocked at the answer.

That’s because it’s not all that “affordable.”

And it’s about to get worse.

There are different types of “affordable housing.” The kind I live in works like this:

  • I live in an apartment complex.
  • At least 10% of the units need to be part of the “affordable housing” program so that the developers/owners get tax breaks.
  • The rents are set by the state, based on my region. It’s based on a percentage of local earnings or housing rates or something. I’m not sure, and it doesn’t really matter, because it works out the same way.
  • Every year, the state determines how much rents will go up in my region.

As my lease is coming up for renewal, I filled out the 25-page questionnaire that reminded me of the colonoscopy I once had. They need A LOT of information. I have to account for every deposit into my bank account so they know my income is within the affordable housing limits. Cash a check from my parents? That counts as income. Get a job? That counts as income. Sell shit from my apartment? That counts as income. It’s invasive and unpleasant, but I do it so I can live here.

When they gave me the form, I was also told when next year’s rent will be. It’s a lot. Cheaper than what my neighbors in this complex pay, but a lot. Over $1400, not including utilities. Now I live in the Boston area, so rents here are high. Still, this is tough for someone who isn’t able to work full time. (Actually, my income is below their minimum requirements. The only let me move in because I have enough money in savings so assure I can cover my rent. Sadly, a lot of people earn too little to qualify for “affordable” housing!)

The increase bugs the hell out of me for one simple reason: it is a 5% increase! Yes, my rent is low compared to my neighbors, but 5%!

Rents in the area have been skyrocketing for years. My social security disability payments will not go up at all this year. I get the maximum SNAP (formerly food stamps) benefits, and this year they went down by $2 per month because the maximum amount was lowered. None of my other benefits are going up. And let’s say I was working. I might be lucky enough to get a 2-3% raise. Maybe, and I mean maybe, a 4% raise. Maybe. But no one gets a 5% raise.

The cost of food is going up. Housing costs are going up. And benefits are going down. Politicians are saying that these programs cost too much, and they’re right. But instead of finding a way to fund the programs or fix the system, they are reducing benefits to people who need them.

And I am one of the lucky ones. I have enough money in savings to cover my costs for a while. My part time work covers some of my expenses. My parents help out a bit. It all works out. Sure, I almost never get to spend money on fun things, but at least I’m getting by.

I was telling someone that the waiting list for Section 8 housing is now 8-10 years. I am told I should expect to wait another 3-4 years to get into the program. Of course, I was told that when I signed up 4 years ago. She asked what people are supposed to do in the meantime.

And that’s the catch. The “safety nets” only work for people who aren’t truly desperate for them. Yes, people who are homeless get moved up on the waiting list for Section 8 (which is one reason why I get pushed down the list.) But it’s not enough. Someone shouldn’t have to be homeless before they get help.

These things are decided by people with good jobs earning steady paychecks. They presumably can pay for housing and food from those paychecks. So maybe they simply don’t understand what “affordable” means? I’d rather think they don’t get it, than that they don’t care.

Because raising rents based on what the community is earning or paying might sound good in theory. But a 5% rent increase is a lot for someone who wasn’t making ends meet before, and isn’t getting any sort of increase in their own income.

And I’m one of the lucky ones. What does that say about our system?


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