What do you get when a program that helps referred individuals gain Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits does enough paperwork that, when stacked, would reach halfway up downtown Portland’s iconic “Big Pink” U.S. Bancorp tower?
For Central City Concern’s Benefits & Entitlements Specialist Team (BEST), that gets you exactly 1,034 successful benefits cases, and all signs pointing to that number continuing to grow.
On Friday, December 5, 2014, CCC held an event to celebrate the work of BEST, a program located in the Old Town Recovery Center that assists vulnerable individuals, many of whom live with severe disabilities, in pursuing Social Security benefits that aid in their path toward self-sufficiency.
For our 1,034 and counting clients, successful awards have meant dignity and pride in being able to meet basic needs, pay rent, access healthcare, and engage meaningfully with their communities because of the financial stability that SSI and SSDI benefits provide. In total, these benefits have also contributed $30 million to the local economy through rent, groceries, and other daily economic activity. So what better time to pause, recognize the work that has gone into surpassing this milestone, and thank the various partners who have supported BEST’s work along the way?
Ed Blackburn, CCC’s Executive Director, kicked off the celebration, giving guests an overview of how the BEST program was a natural way to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. The work and research of people like Mellani Calvin and Rachel Post (now CCC’s public policy director), combined with early support from the Portland Housing Bureau, Providence Health & Services, and the Kaiser Community Fund at the Northwest Health Foundation, helped establish BEST as a full-fledged program in 2008. BEST then contracted with Multnomah County to administer its Homeless Benefits Recovery project, which won a National Association of Counties Achievement Award in 2013.
Kas Causeya, BEST’s program manager, pulled the curtain back to detail the many things that BEST must do for each case. Applying for benefits, he said, is an incredibly complex process, especially when the client is cognitively impaired. BEST does the work of gathering extensive information about the client, interviewing the client and others who know more about their situation, and coordinating and paying for medical and psychiatric evaluations. Staff take all of that information to write a summary that is filed with the total application.
Though a lot of what BEST does revolves around paperwork and processes, several family members of BEST clients spoke to remind us how deeply personal BEST’s work often ends up being. Willa, whose brother was referred to BEST, and Corina, whose son became a BEST client, both spoke to how thankful they were for BEST and all the individuals and organizations that make BEST’s work possible. Willa and Corina both spoke about the acute worry they had about their family members’ potentially falling into poverty, but also about the immense relief brought on by the approval for benefits. Both mentioned the warmth, dignity, thoroughness, and dedication with which the BEST staff worked with and advocated for their family member. Willa’s brother and Corina’s son are now living in stable situations!
Daniel Perry, a BEST staff member, told the event attendees that the amount of paperwork going into each case only scratches the surface on how complicated and intense cases can be. He gave the example of a particularly tough client who, along with an extensive history of homelessness, had proven to be challenging to work with not only at Old Town Recovery Center, but other service agencies throughout the area. The client had applied for benefits once before on his own, but his substance abuse kept him from clearing the sobriety requirement to receive assistance. Exacerbating the instability of his situation were mobility, memory, and concentration impairments, likely from multiple traumatic brain injuries he had incurred.
As this client was engaged in multiple points along CCC’s continuum of care, Daniel, along with his client’s healthcare providers, decided that if there were ever a time to help someone get clean and sober – to position themselves to receive the care and benefits they needed – this was the time to do it.
Through Daniel’s relentless dedication, his client was able to continue his primary and behavioral care, accessed Central City Concern housing, and was connected with support to help him maintain his sobriety. Daniel worked with the client to complete his benefits application, which was just recently approved! Daniel made it clear that the complexity and intensity of BEST cases is offset by the community of staff all working toward the wellbeing of clients. “The work we do,” Daniel said,” We don’t just do it in isolation. It’s a team effort.”
George Wall, a local attorney who has been a legal advisor to BEST since the very beginning, spoke for a few minutes to share some surprising numbers. Whereas the national average for Social Security benefits applications is 34% (and 14% for “reconsidered” cases), applications submitted through BEST have an 89% approval rate. George also announced that BEST will be presenting at the National Association of Disability Examiners conference in 2015 – a sign that others nationwide are noticing BEST’s work.