PERSPECTIVE: At The Bottom Of The Safety Net … Maryland Social Services

This is one of those posts that disappeared. I’ve talked about this before. After I had finished it, pressed Publish, it saved a blank page titled Auto Draft. I found it on the RSS feed, however, but was not able to retrieve it. Luckily, as I already had a copy of the contents, I was able to post again, but lost the formatting, sadly. The headings are in bold and I italicized one part to avoid confusion.

You see, Governor? Yesterday, I called for your email address, and I wrote exactly what was dictated, but it was the wrong address. When I called your office today, the same person, asked me what I address I had, then corrected me, and denied the error— so, mistakes, Governor. Perhaps, mine. Perhaps, at your end.

Communication, Governor, is the key to progress.

Enjoy your weekend!

Governor O’Malley,

It’s always good to start at the bottom— if you want to figure out what’s going on at the top. It may be that the top is completely clueless about what is actually happening at the bottom, which I strongly suspect is the case here — and that’s where I come in, to bridge that gap. And just think! It’s Pro Bono.

It doesn’t take long to drop to the bottom of the social safety net. It takes less than a snap of the finger to make that decision to leave an toxic (though economically safe) relationship and then face the consequences of that decision. But nothing can be as bad as where you were, right?

That is correct.
But you can come damn close to it.

So let’s fast-forward to early September of this year, and, Thursday, October 23, and the fences which collapsed along the way, culminating in that grand finale of yesterday.

When I finally found housing specific to my situation — that being, adults with a psychiatric diagnosis — I was thrilled. That was after 3 months of homelessness and one hospitalization along the way. It was the kindness of a handful of people who felt that I have something of value to contribute to discourse on Mental Health, etc., and who made sure I did not end up on the streets during the frosty chill of autumn. Incidentally, the program which came to the rescue is largely funded by private donations, and I imagine a smattering of dollars from State, and even, perhaps, Federal funds — but don’t quote me on that. In addition, it is based on a sound model which requires patience, acceptance, and people who actually like helping people.

So the first thing on the schedule was to apply for Food Stamps.
(God, will the poor never learn to rely on themselves?
Pick themselves up! Get a job. Lazy bunch of deadbeats.)

It was almost effortless and I was truly shocked.
But that was also my first foray into the system and the prize —food — I eventually realized, was not as easy to access, as I had initially imagined.

Along the way, I plan to provide some minuscule, but still cost-saving measures, that would not only relieve the State of some its burden, but also lighten the unwarranted, psychological burden placed on the poor because of the current strategies in place.

MIXED MESSAGES

So, do I or don’t I have Food Stamps?

Not more than two weeks had passed before I received the “INDEPENDENCE CARD” in the mail, courtesy of the Maryland Department of Human Resources. If you want a card that screams poverty, then this is the card for you: Bright red and bold font, against an equally bright orange background, in which a map, I presume, of Maryland, in pale yellow, adds a certain asymmetrical character to it.

This was somewhat confusing as I had also received a letter from the Maryland Department of Human Services advising me of a mandatory interview that had to take place, to establish my eligibility for Food Stamps. However, as the date listed in the letter had already passed before I ever received the letter, this only increased my anxiety. How do I appear at an interview which was scheduled in the past?

Luckily, despite the bizarre nature of the request — to appear on a date that had already passed — the letter not only had Randy C, listed as the Case Manager, but also a telephone number. So I did what any reasonable person would do: I dialed the number. I suggest you try it as well, and judge for yourself, whether the deeply existential message would have rivaled the message in any work of the Existentialist playwrights — Beckett, Sartre, you choose. Personally, I think Sartre would have been impressed. The message goes something like this: “Thank you, for calling blah, blah, blah. Please call again during non-peak hours.”

My initial reaction was: When exactly are non-peak hours?

That critical piece of information was absent in the recorded message.

Naturally, you begin to doubt yourself, after you have repeatedly tried calling, and the message never changes. You still haven’t managed to guess which hours are peak, and which are not. It appears that all hours are peak… And if that’s the case, then why are you calling 410.244.3300?

Well, just because the Department of Human Resources told you to!

When you get caught up in this circular pattern of thought, it is always beneficial to have something break into it —at least, for a while. After all, getting obsessed over a ghost number hardly seems worth the energy, right?

For me, that distraction was the INDEPENDENCE CARD.

Instructions to activate my INDEPENDENCE CARD were listed on the correspondence, and I thought … What the heck? Why not try it? I went through the prompts and then I was congratulated — my allowance for food would be deposited to my account on the 9th of each month. There was this incredible feeling of security, stability, knowing that I would have access to food on the 9th of each month — just because an automated system told me so. I trusted it. I trusted it more than 410.244.3300. Who wouldn’t?

Still, the mixed message, was still there: So, do I or don’t I have Food Stamps?

One automated system planted nothing but doubt in my mind; while the other attempted to quell any uncertainty I may have been experiencing. It was no use trying to call 410.244.3300 — that, obviously didn’t work. So, I had to actually try using my INDEPENDENCE CARD at the grocery store. A small purchase first. Just a test. Does this really work? And to my delight, it did! Whoa, food!

Now even though I’m not a big eater, I realize, we all need food. And sometimes, it is very difficult to remember that when other stressful demands are being made on you, and I frequently forget to eat. Some people eat when they get depressed; others, like me, lose their appetite. Add a good serving of stress and anxiety and that increases exponentially — not a healthy place for anyone to go to. The result? A loss of weight. And there is a certain point where that loss becomes dangerous, health-wise. Haven’t gotten there yet, but I can assure you that I will over the next 30 days — because of policies, governing Food Stamps.

In the meantime, I continued to deal with a psychotic system: You do. Call back at non-peak hours. You don’t. You do. Maybe you do. You don’t. And by using that term, psychotic, I do not mean to disparage or ridicule those who experience psychosis because that is a truly terrifying experience, when things that are not real appear to be real, and things that are real appear to be unreal. However, it’s an apt comparison. And perhaps, it will lessen a bit of the stigma those of us face who have a psychiatric diagnosis with those who don’t and who are abysmally clueless about this cluster of medical conditions. Even complex government systems can exhibit symptoms of psychosis. (Just look at the Ebola response.)

A letter, which is not dated, and a copy of which is below, advised me that my Food Stamp Assistance will end on 9/30/14. But it was not the letter which expressed it most succinctly, but my attempt to buy food after the 9th of October, when I realized I only had something like $10 in the account. Other stressful circumstances had dominated most of September and early October, and my attention, I admit, was compromised. I couldn’t devote all of my attention to Social Services.

That same week I became sick. Bronchitis. After trying to unsuccessfully prevent a bronchial infection, my doctor prescribed a routine course of antibiotics, which did not work. A second round of stronger antibiotics, more prednisone, Flovent, Albuterol Sulfate and a cough concoction was started. I was bed-ridden for almost 3 weeks, I think. Thursday, the day I went to 1223 West Pratt Street — incidentally, I had to work really hard to get that address, since it wasn’t on the letter that advised me that my benefits would stop on the 30th — I was actually able to get out of bed, bathe, and head to the Department of Social Services. All the time I couldn’t get out of bed, I knew that was my priority as soon as I could get out of bed. And those who know me would never suspect me of being anything less than determined.

That’s a given.

1223 West Pratt
Baltimore, MD

Again, I summon the spirit of Sartre in my futile attempt to describe this environment. Aside from the Security Cocoon, which everybody must pass through, there is a noticeable absence of signs. What seems like a natural place to go, after Security, the next body manning that counter, is in fact, the wrong place to go. But how would you know that? Well, you wouldn’t, if this is your first time there. But if you are a seasoned poverty expert, you know exactly where to go, And that man certainly put me in my place! “You have to go there, and stand in line!” he said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know that.” I said. He wasn’t sympathetic. So I went and stood in line to go where I thought I would have to go next, but wasn’t sure, cause there certainly were no guides to guide you through the process (Which I can understand. Money, right?) nor were there any signs.

I clocked in at 9:30 AM to a packed house.

When it was my turn to approach the next body manning the counter, he was reasonably polite, but still no explanation of the process. I handed him my letter, he did something on the computer, gave me a number, and told me to sit down. I acquiesced. Occasionally you could hear a number being called out with further directions on where to go next, but still, you didn’t know why you were going where you going next, and staff seemed a tad impatient if you asked a question like that. Around 11 AM, I heard my number, as well as others, directed to go to this room (whatever the acronym is) and luckily there was a sign on that door! But it was an acronym. Now I know the government is incredibly fond of acronyms. I know that they publish volumes describing acronyms alone. Still, the general public is not as keen on acronyms as the government is.

As soon as you entered the room, a profound silence swept over you —Why are you here? — while you stood around waiting to connect with another human. Finally a staff member approached me, didn’t say anything, took my feeble form from my hands, and returned with another form, but said nothing.

So I waited.
And waited.

Then some other woman approached me and asked me if I knew how to use a computer. I did. Okay, so go sit at a computer, she said. And…? You can fill out the application there. Ohhhhh, I said. Thank you! Although it wasn’t clear what application I had to fill out, apparently, the computers were programed to erase that uncertainty.

Total time there: Around 45 minutes.

Then …

The famous refrain: Go sit down.
Again, I acquiesced, believing my patience would eventually be rewarded. But, I now realize, that was a lot like Waiting for Godot. There was no indication my patience would be rewarded — aside from a fundamental and foolish faith I possess toward humanity and/or impossible things. Idealism immediately comes to mind.

However, the thing I did not anticipate was the terror that lay ahead.

2:15 PM

#268!
That’s me. That’s me.

A rather unpleasant and unfriendly woman directed me to go to Booth 13.
I sat down. The same woman appeared on the other side. But she started talking to another client (I have no idea how she slipped through) and Ms. K began helping her, while I sat waiting for her to finish, and ideally provide her undivided attention to me, which did not happen.

I was out of there, and in my car, by 2:30 PM.

Ms. K asked me what I was doing there. Um. Food. Help. Emergency funds, maybe? Where did you see that? she demanded. Um, it was an option on the form. I clicked it. And then, taking my form and my only evidence that I exist in the system — that letter — she began to interact with her computer. She produced some forms, highlighted parts of them, and told me to sign them. She became extremely agitated because I began reading what I was asked to sign and when I came across confusing information and asked her to explain it to me, she became hostile. All I want is an explanation, I said. It’s not clear. And you are asking me to sign something I don’t understand. Well, that just made her more hostile. It was obvious that she had profiled me — intelligence is really bad — and I was disturbing her equilibrium. I suppose most people who go there sign whatever is put in front of them. They believe! So, that was probably the second strike against me — that I should request clarification, which every person is entitled to, right?

But not according to Ms. K.

I was at her mercy. And she didn’t like me. She had complete control over my ability to survive. I tried to explain how it was impossible to contact anybody there with the number provided. Her expression was cast in stone. I finally said, Look you guys messed up. I didn’t mess up, she said. This is nothing personal, but apparently it was to her. They will make a determination in 30 days, she said. And that was it. “You can go now,” she said. “But I still have questions,” I said. “I said, leave.” But I’ve been here since 9:30 AM.

When I told her I’d like to speak to her Supervisor, she threatened me, told me Security was on its way to escort me out of the building!!!
All of a sudden, I had no rights whatsoever. I could not even ask a question!

One of her co-workers witnessed the exchange between me and her.
A male.
But he said nothing.
I strongly recommend somebody interview this guy.

And then, when Security arrived, I was scrambling to get my stuff together, he too told me I had to leave. As I started to walk away, I heard him laughing. And I turned around and saw him laughing (I could not see Ms. K) and in horror, I said, “You’re laughing! This is not funny.” He continued to laugh. He told me to leave again. And he continued laughing. I also told her I would report her behavior and that people like her had no business administering the needs of people who are distressed and downtrodden. (Not in those words exactly, but that was the gist of my response.)

So what was my crime?
Asking questions?
Trying to get information that I have a right to?

And my question to the architects of this nightmare is:
When did the Department of Human Resources adopt Hitler’s method of governance?
Because this is not America.
Or, maybe it is.

Instead of protecting the minuscule safety net we have here — provision of food — we have people like Ms. K, sitting at the bottom, and increasing the holes for people to slip through.

But rest assured …

I have 11 hard-boiled eggs, a quarter cup of tuna, a bottle of GMO-free cranberry juice, 5 bags of Double Green Matcha Green Tea, one liter of Extra Virgin Olive Oil, a bag of lemons, a green pepper, grape tomatoes, 7 slices of whole grain bread, one bag of raw almonds, and a pot of Chicken Noodle Soup, which I had to foresight to make when I became ill — from scratch!

People like Ms. Knight may want to attempt to survive on a diet like that for 30 days before they qualify for any position that puts public health at risk because of gross incompetence.

Further, corporations now have strong incentives to promote healthier living, and no one at that office looked like they had been deprived of food. In fact, they were perfect candidates for such a program. Obesity was rampant. Now that is a health hazard. But nowhere as lethal as one person’s inhumanity towards another who is clearly suffering.

RECOMMENDATIONS

1. No brainer. Disconnect 410.244.3300.

What’s the use of paying for a line that no one answers. I mean, slashing this from the budget is admittedly slight — but every penny counts, right?

Secondly, stop the deception. Be up front. Don’t lead people who are already distressed down a blind alley. Put it in bold: WE DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH YOU, AND WE DON’T CARE, SO WE’LL TOSS YOU THIS LINE, WHICH WILL LEAD YOU TO BELIEVE YOU CAN COMMUNICATE, WHEN IN FACT, YOU CANNOT.

2. Human Sensitivity Training/ Screening for all candidates who wish to work in the Social Services.

3. A 30-day mandatory training period where candidates are required to nourish themselves with only the products listed above, preceding any contact they may have with the public.

4, An impromptu visit, Governor O’Malley, would do wonders. However, I suggest you appear as one of the downtrodden. It’s essential that you go there disguised. A shopping cart would help tremendously.

5. And of course, the most efficient method to restore fiscal vibrancy to that sector of government —replace all humans with computers. Another no brainer. Computers look at numbers. They don’t make judgments based on bias. That would be fair.

I have a lot more I could add, but from this point on, it will not be Pro Bono.
But I figure this is enough to shake those at the top out of their slumber.

CONCLUSION

I had the good fortune to be selected to participate in LEAP (Leadership Empowerment Advocacy Project) an innovative program sponsored by the Maryland Department of Mental Health, earlier this year. When Brian Hepburn spoke to us, he said, based on his experience, Stigma toward people with psychiatric disorders, is worse now than it has been in decades. And he’s right. What people do not understand about a psychiatric medical condition, is that your intelligence is not diminished or compromised because of it. Indeed, you’ll find an excellent crop of intelligence among such individuals. But ignorance prevails. And ignorance is deadly.

Another person who spoke to us and who made an impression on me was William Hudock, with SAMSHA (You can find that in the government’s catalogue of acronyms, if it doesn’t ring a bell.). Bill provided a crystal description of the current health system in America. And his message — the one that resonated with me — is that it’s in everybody’s interest to provide services that support healthy living standards. In the long run, that is the most economical and efficient system, not only for government, but for all Americans.

Sincerely,
LEAP Advocate

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