Saturday, June 25, 2011

Why should "Care Not Cash" get cash back?

If it's so important to keep people from spending money as they like, why is San Francisco trying to collect unrestricted cash money back from the disability benefits of former shelter inmates as "repayment" for the use of shelter beds?

I mean, if you just give cash to the City of San Francisco, it might get spent on anything -- motorcades, event catering (possibly involving alcohol or caffeine), ex-mayors' ex-girlfriends, construction for the America's Cup... Why should high-living officials be trusted with cash that disabled poor people earned bit by bit with suffering and patience?

Thing is, it takes disabled Americans many months, sometimes years, to qualify for federal SSI disability benefits, so when the benefits come through, they start with a big retroactive benefits check to the recipient -- sometimes $10,000 or more. A "retro check" is often the biggest single pot of money the person will ever receive to do something serious with, like buying a good car or RV, paying first and last month's rent on a nice place to live, or even moving someplace where a retro check buys a start on a mortgage.

The City and County of San Francisco is entitled to collect back cash aid from people who received it while waiting for their SSI. It's normal procedure, under long-established federal law, for a county benefits program to take back its cash aid amounts before the recipients get what's left. But now the city is also trying to collect back, in cash, the "value" of "housing" provided to these SSI applicants in the form of cruddy shelter beds under San Francisco's wrongly praised Care Not Cash program.

"Care Not Cash" requires that moneyless single adults who apply for aid, who don't already have cheap housing lined up, receive next to no money ($59) from the County Adult Assistance Program (CAAP). Otherwise, they're offered aid in kind in the form of "housing," usually in a shelter. If I understand correctly, the only chance of moving up to a city-provided residential hotel room is to serve time first in the dangerous and demeaning purgatory of a shelter.

In other words, people are being asked to pay back the cost of an experience that on the receiving end was halfway to imprisonment.

Jennifer Friedenbach of the Coalition on Homeless gave me permission to quote this explanation, which she wrote for a listserv discussion:
"The CAAP deduction is not technically rent, because they don't have tenant rights. But from the homeless person's perspective, money is being deducted out of their checks to cover the cost of shelter. This often "feels" like rent. It is unfair in two ways; 1) others do not have their checks deducted and 2) beds are disproportinately assigned to CAAP recipients (43% of the beds and only 14% of the population), whether they use them or not. This has meant more competition for beds among disabled, undocumented, working, senior and no income shelter seekers, and a lot of one-night beds.

The city is planning on saving almost a 1/2 million more $ by also deducting from SSI retro checks of Care Not Cash recipients. THIS is a new practice. (yes they have always deducted for CAAP cash payments but since Care Not Cash, that was only the cash part not the shelter part) Again from the person's perspective it feels like they are getting double dinged - $ taken out of CAAP checks for shelter, and now $ taken out of the SSI retro checks for the same thing. They are also planning on deducting for master lease costs as well. We are opposed to this practice, as people have very little in terms of accumulated wealth coming off the streets and this is the only nest egg most homeless disabled people will ever have."
By "master lease costs" she means the cost of providing the SRO rooms that people graduate to from the shelters if they tough it out. I can see that in a way, but it still seems unfair. Those SRO rooms aren't necessarily places where a sane, sober person with $422 in cash for the month would choose to pay for shelter.

So this is just me talking, and I haven't dealt directly with the CAAP program in many years, and as always the stuff I write here is not intended as legal advice, but I'd say there's an argument that any deductions for the "not cash" part of Care Not Cash should be restricted to the maximum "in-kind support and maintenance" amount that the SSI program itself deducts from ongoing benefits for people who get free food and/or shelter, currently about $225 per month or less. (Here's a version of the math, but better check current figures.) So, yes, federal law doesn't always control a local program, but why should a federal program cooperate in taking shelter reimbursements out of people's benefits in amounts that the federal program itself would consider too high?

Fortunately, a ballot measure is coming up for vote this year to take shelters out of the definition of "housing," so people wouldn't have their grants reduced from $422 to just $59 for the "benefit" of being made to sleep in a city shelter. Tim Redmond of the Bay Guardian explains very well here.

In the meantime, if city officials want SSI recipients to pay them back for the use of shelter beds, I think aid in kind is called for. The recipients' money should be paid directly to a nonprofit that provides a big concrete room full of bunk beds and a communal washroom down the hall. Any officials who want reimbursement should have the privilege of sleeping there for as many nights as it takes them to collect.

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P.S. Happy George Orwell's 108th birthday.

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