Bringing out the BEST for CCC Clients

Mar 29, 2018

A detailed application. Multiple questionnaires. Medical exams and psychiatric assessments. Probing, personal questions about your past. Unforgiving deadlines.

Just reading those words might be enough to make you feel overwhelmed. Welcome to the process for pursuing Social Security benefits.

The application process is notorious for being as complicated as it is comprehensive: it ensures that only those who are truly unable to earn wages receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or both. Unfortunately, the high degree of difficulty also means that those who are most in need of the stabilizing lifeline of Social Security income are often unable to successfully apply by their own efforts.

BEST program staffers build the strongest Social Security benefits case possible for each client by reviewing medical records, performing interviews, and coordinating assessments.Many of the people Central City Concern (CCC) serves fit in this category. So since March 2008, CCC’s Benefits and Entitlements Specialist Team (BEST) program has helped particularly vulnerable individuals—most experiencing homelessness or deep poverty and living with severe disabilities that keep them from gaining their own income through employment—navigate the maze.

“The stress of telling their story and reliving traumas is often overwhelming and triggering,” says Kas Causeya, BEST’s program manager. “Add in complicated terminology and unfamiliarity with the Social Security Administration (SSA) and Disability Determination Service (DDS) criteria for awardees, and the applicant’s chance for errors rockets up if they try on their own.”

BEST’s benefits specialists walk side-by-side with each client and use their expertise to maximize the chances of a successful application. They gather information through interviews with the client and those who may know more about their situation. They coordinate psychological and medical exams, which BEST pays for. And while the client’s cognitive impairment can add a level of difficulty, BEST specialists doggedly track down as much information as they can to build the strongest case possible. Stacks of paperwork over a foot tall for each case are common.

...BEST specialists doggedly track down as much information as they can to build the strongest case possible. Stacks of paperwork over a foot tall for each case are common.

The goal is, of course, to gain approval for Social Security benefits. To awardees, their income is much more than a check. It represents pride in being able to meet basic needs and pay rent. It inspires feelings of dignity by giving them a means to make purchases that allow a measure of self-sufficiency. The financial stability gives them freedom to engage meaningfully with their communities.

Over the course of 10 years, more than 1,600 people have found hope with the help of BEST.

Kellie F. counts herself among the fortunate. She has an exceedingly difficult time remembering things, a lifelong condition that has caused her great difficulties. She experienced multiple traumas growing up, and fresher ones as she moved through adulthood. She became heavily dependent on alcohol to cope.

“My memory thing is really flustering. There are things I wish I wish I could remember that I can’t. And there are some things from my past I don’t want to remember, but I do.”

Her substance use disorder brought her to CCC’s Hooper Detox, and from there she engaged with CCC’s 8x8 Recovery Housing program, where she started developing the tools and skills for successful long-term recovery. Her case manager recognized Kellie’s difficulty with memory and referred her to the BEST program, if only for an initial assessment to see if her difficulties would qualify her for Social Security. That’s where she met Marshal, a BEST specialist.

“I found Kellie to be very eager and motivated to engage in the BEST process. As I reviewed her case I read the story of someone who faced significant barriers to work but who, despite much suffering and hardship, continued to persevere,” recollects Marshal.

So far, the 1,600+ benefits awards BEST has won has brought in nearly $65 million to Portland and Multnomah County. That’s $65 million pumped into the local economy through rent, groceries, and other daily economic activity.

Together, Marshal and Kellie dived into the process. They explored Kellie’s understanding of her impairments and how they impacted her daily life. Marshal took her to a psychologist for a cognitive evaluation, helped her complete a phone interview with the Social Security office, met with her to review her work history, and again to go over little details to further strengthen her claim. Marshal and his BEST colleagues reviewed all her medical records, wrote a detailed report summarizing their argument for Kellie’s behalf, and kept in regular contact with SSA and DDS. Through it all, he made sure to keep the line of communication with Kellie as open and inviting as possible, earning and nurturing a sense of mutual trust.

Stacks of paperwork that grow to a foot high over the course of building a client's case are a common sight in the BEST office.“I felt nervous at first about [applying]. And there were times when were times I felt overwhelmed by the questions,” Kellie says. “But Marshal was really encouraging and supportive.”

Kellie and Marshal had good reason to feel optimistic about her chances once they sent in her application. Due to their fluency in the system, BEST wins 67 percent of their initial applications, compared to 32 percent of applicants from the general population. To put BEST’s expertise even more starkly, only 15 percent of applicants nationwide who are homeless are awarded benefits. The program’s close relationship and coordination with SSA and DDS mitigate many of the stumbling blocks that lead to unsuccessful applications.

On average, applicants receive an initial decision about 110 days after they submit their application; for BEST clients, they hear back, on average, within 74 days. Kellie received her results. But as is the case in 33 percent of BEST’s initial applications, Kellie received a heartbreaking denial. “I felt like I didn’t know where I was going to go from there,” she says.

Marshal acted quickly to reconfigure and strengthen Kellie’s case and filed for reconsideration. “We don’t like to see denials as ‘no,’” says Marshal. “We take it as a ‘just not yet’ and go from there.”

BEST’s perseverance pays off. An additional 6 percent of BEST’s clients win awards after a reconsideration or appeal, upping their overall success rate to 72 percent. Kellie eventually received a second letter. She had qualified for SSDI. Marshal’s extra efforts made all the difference.

“They saw that I really do have a disability that keeps me from working,” she says. “I was very happy about that. Having an income now gives me some more hope and I can imagine better things to come.”

“Having an income now gives me some more hope and I can imagine better things to come.”

So far, the 1,600+ benefits awards BEST has won has brought in nearly $65 million to Portland and Multnomah County. That’s $65 million pumped into the local economy through rent, groceries, and other daily economic activity.

Behind each of the awards—and the reams of paperwork and hours of information gathering that went into them—is a person who has found stability they wouldn’t have had otherwise. A person who doesn’t feel as anxious about how they’ll afford necessities. A person who feels prepared to become a contributing part of the community. A person like Kellie.

“When I found out I qualified for SSDI, I felt like I could be part of society again. I feel better about myself now,” she says. “I actually just put in an application to do some volunteering.”

It often takes many hands to guide people toward self-sufficiency, however that ends up looking like for each person. Since 2008, more than 150 community partners— including BEST’s original partners:, the City of Portland, Providence Health & Services, and the Kaiser Community Fund—have played some role in helping more than 1,600 people achieve independence.

Receiving benefits doesn’t make Kellie’s memory impairments any better, which severely affect how she navigates each day. But she has a perspective that keeps her looking and moving forward.

“I can remember the things I need to remember that keep me on the good path now. Life is a heck of a lot better than it was.”



Monthly Volunteer Spotlight: March 2018 Edition

Mar 27, 2018

For the month of March, we wanted to turn our spotlight on an important, if little seen, part of our organization. Central City Concern’s board of directors is comprised of an all-star line-up of community figures and subject matter experts, but when the board needs to hone in on a particular part of CCC’s work, they sometimes turn to the board committees, which are specialty groups that are made up of board members, and other volunteers with a particular expertise.

For this month’s spotlight, we sat down with one of the members of the board’s Audit and Compliance committee, Shirley Cyr, to hear about the work she does. While Shirley herself is quick to divert any praise directed at her to others, a couple of her colleagues at CCC jumped at the opportunity to share their appreciation for her work. EV Armitage, CCC’s executive coordinator, said Shirley “is a dedicated committee member. Her expertise in the very specific and complex area of nonprofit audits has been really helpful for CCC, and she is able to address valuable questions and comments about our audits.”

Sarah Chisholm, CCC’s current chief financial officer, added, “we’re delighted to have Shirley serve on the committee because of her passion for serving the nonprofit sector and her technical accounting knowledge. She provides an important function, which is ensuring our annual financial audit has the appropriate checks and balances.”

Read on to hear about how Shirley’s work helps CCC “be good” and the changes she has seen in her 10 years of service.

• • •

Shirley Cyr has been volunteering on CCC's Audit and Compliance board committee for nearly 10 years.Peter: What is your name and volunteer role?

Shirley: My name is Shirley Cyr and I am part of the Audit and Compliance board committee within Central City Concern.

P: And how long have you been on the Audit Committee?

S: I have no idea! I think it’s been since 2007 or 2008. I was asked to participate by David Altman, who was CCC’s CFO at the time. So I’ve just stayed involved. He moved on long ago, but I’m still there.

David, when he came in, felt that the organization needed to put some procedures in place and formed the audit committee, since there hadn’t been one before. Besides being responsible for the financial statements and the audits, we also review the compliance audits which are done internally. It’s a lot more than I initially thought it was, as far as the oversight, but it’s been interesting.

P: Has it been exciting to be able to shape things through the committee’s work?

S: We’re more of an oversight committee and provide guidance, but it does play a significant role for the organization even though most people don’t know it’s there.

P: It’s having that second set of eyes and the assurance that comes with that.

S: Yeah. David, when he brought me in, it was because I’m a CPA. So, financial expertise is why I was put on the committee. Looking at the organization’s financial statement, interpreting them, and understanding them, that’s pretty easy for me because that’s what I’ve done for a long time. I worked in public accounting for about nine-and-half-years.

P: Outside of questions about our programs, I think the question I get the most often about CCC is, “How are you funded?”

S: A lot of it is governmental funding for the critical services CCC provides, so there’s a lot of compliance involved with that. You don’t get to continue the work if you don’t do a good job, so compliance is critical to the organization. Many agencies come in and audit the organization and look at the record keeping; if it’s not right, you get shut down. So, it’s got to be good.

P: What has your experience been with seeing CCC change over the last ten years?

S: It’s been a lot of growth: added housing, added services, and the ability to serve more. It’s been incredible to watch that growth. Sometimes you get a little bit frightened that growth has been too fast, but it’s been handled well. There’s always a little bit of upheaval with growth and it can take a little while to settle in sometimes, but I think it’s been handled very well. The staff I’ve gotten to work with are incredible.

"There’s always a little bit of upheaval with growth and it can take a little while to settle in sometimes, but I think it’s been handled very well. The staff I’ve gotten to work with are incredible."
-Shirley Cyr, CCC Volunteer

P: Has there been a particular project or part of that that you got to work on that was particularly meaningful for you?

S: The compliance aspect, just so far as overall compliance, I think that’s been fascinating for me.

P: What’s been the most fascinating thing to learn more about?

S: Last week when we had our meeting it was a lot about the staffing, looking at the female-to-male workforce percentages in different departments, so you want to try and get some diversity within genders, but also different ethnicities. CCC has done a very good job in bringing in a good blend of people that reflect the community that they work in, and that’s what’s really critical.

Part of this is because CCC hires so many people that have been clients of the organization. In my company, we look at trying to improve the workforce, and to help people out that are previously disadvantaged into getting jobs and good jobs. You guys do it every day of the week. It’s something that we strive to do more of, and we try and try and try, and we do the best we can, but you guys are actually able to do it. I’m pretty impressed with that. We didn’t get to keep the report after the meeting, but I would love to mirror it, because I love to plagiarize, so to speak, when I can, with ideas and formats and such.

P: That’s sort of the broader benefit of bringing people such as yourself to these oversight committees, is that you can take inspiration from us, but we can also be inspired by your experience and different lenses.

S: I think the lenses are probably the important part. You get different ideas from different people or sometimes you just want to knock an idea around. When you’re in accounting or the CPA world you are in an entity pretty much by yourself, so you’re a sounding board of one, which is hard. So sometimes it helps to have others around to do that.

"Every once in a while I’ll look at my commitments and say, 'Okay continue or don’t continue.' And this one I haven’t given up and I don’t think I will."

P: That’s a lesson I’m still learning in my own career, which is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time.

S: Well, it’s like, “Have you got this kind of policy?” And they’ll say, “Oh yeah, sure, here you go!” And that’s how policies are developed, so a lot of them will look the same because they come from the same source. That’s how I’ve done things forever, I’ll go online to find things. Thankfully we have the internet!

P: If someone was interested in volunteering with a committee, but they were on the fence, what would you tell them?

S: It’s a great organization that accomplishes good works. It feels good to be a part of the organization in some small way, because it does impact change.

Every once in a while I’ll look at my commitments and say, “Okay continue or don’t continue.” And this one I haven’t given up and I don’t think I will.



Meet We Are Family Headliner, Julia Ramos!

Mar 23, 2018

Central City Concern’s annual We Are Family fundraising dinner is coming up on May 2. The event raises funds in support of Letty Owings Center (inpatient treatment for pregnant women and mothers with young children), and our Family Housing programs. This year, guests will be treated to the unique and entertaining perspective of Portland stand-up comic, Julia Ramos.

Local comedian Julia Ramos will headline Central City Concern's We Are Family event on May 2, 2018. She tackles tough subjects, like her personal experience with addiction, through her comedy.Julia has made her mark by leaving no issue in her life off limits. She’s been invited to perform at the Northwest Women’s Comedy Festival and the All Jane Comedy Festival, and is a co-host for Minority Retort, a showcase in Portland highlighting the talents of local and non-local comedians of color. Julia’s main goal is to keep the conversation open on topics that aren’t always easy to discuss. She feels a solid punchline is the best way to fuel that conversation.

We recently squeezed into Julia’s busy schedule to get a few more details.

CCC: How long have you been doing comedy?

Julia Ramos: I've been doing comedy for a little over six years, however I've been doing comedy sober for almost six years. Stand-up comedy has been a dream of mine since I was five. Television and comedy for me was my first escape. I was fascinated with words and making a group of people laugh. Especially darker subject matter—the ability to turn dark subjects upside down and create laughter from them is powerful.

CCC: Why did you get into comedy?

JR: I really wanted to do comedy writing. I wanted to create sitcoms and be in writers’ rooms with other creative and funny types. Stand-up to me was something I wanted so much, but I felt more comfortable behind the scenes. I read books on comedy writing and all of them stated the only way to see if jokes would work in a taped show, was to try them out in front of a live audience. The books recommended stand-up, so I knew I needed to at least try it out.

CCC: What is your favorite part about entertaining?

JR: It's selfish. Entertaining people and getting a laugh feels good. It feels great. The feeling of relating situations I used to feel shame about is adrenaline inducing. Entertaining others gives them an escape from their lives for a few minutes. That's my job when I'm on stage, I bring them into my world and give them a mini vacation.

CCC: Why are you interested in helping to raise money for Letty Owings Center and Central City Concern’s Family Housing programs?

JR: I like helping, in any way I can. I'm grateful to be an addict; my life is better because of what I've been through. My wish is to give the same opportunity to others, helping women and children especially. I can't think of a more important cause than women, children, and addiction. If there's anything I can ever do to take the stigma from addiction away, and give other humans a foundation into the life they were meant to live, sign me up.

To sponsor a table at the event or two purchase individual tickets to We Are Family, visit our ticket purchase page!

Still curious about Julia and her comedy? Check out one of her hilarious sets!