Big Brother Disqualifies the Poor
from Getting Help
LYDIA GANS / Street Spirit 1jan2006
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, declares that "everyone has the right to... food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widow-hood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."
That seems like a reasonable expectation for people in a civilized society. Yet the Bush administration's actions — pumping obscene amounts of money into overseas military adventures, cutting taxes for the very rich while slashing social pro-grams — are resulting in more people being denied these basic rights every day.
The public spectacle of homeless people, especially mothers and children, sitting shivering on our city streets is shameful. Knowing that there are many more people on the verge of homelessness is painful. The U.S. Conference of Mayors national Hunger and Homelessness Survey has found an increase in homelessness almost every year in the 21 years since it was first taken. During this past year, the number of homeless people, based on the demand for shelter beds, increased by another six percent.
At the same time, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which is supposed to provide housing assistance for poor people in the form of public housing projects and Section 8 rent subsidies, is subjected to continual decreases in funding. The appropriations bill already passed by Congress does not appropriate enough money to meet the current needs, that is, to keep up with existing Section 8 vouchers, let alone keep up with projected future housing needs for the next five years.
In addition, the current $39.7 billion, five-year deficit-reduction bill being considered at this writing contains numerous cuts in all sorts of desperately needed social services, including housing for poor, elderly and disabled people. For example, looking at Section 8, the Bush administration is demanding an additional 2 percent across-the-board cut to all housing assistance programs, but the House and Senate would only go for a 1 percent cut. That doesn't seem like very much out of a $15 billion annual budget for the Section 8 program, but it translates into a loss of 17,500 housing vouchers nation-wide.
That means 17,500 families made homeless, meaning that far more than 17,500 people — perhaps three times that many children, elderly, disabled and poor people — would somehow have to be cut off the rolls of Section 8. How are the housing authorities that administer the program going to carry that out? The buzz word is "attrition."
Locally, the Alameda County and Contra Costa County housing authorities are laying the groundwork for being able to claim that there are fewer people needing or eligible for housing assistance. It's simple: just tighten the eligibility requirements. As a matter of fact, that seems to be the approach taken by many government agencies that provide social services — discourage people from applying by making the process more difficult, more intimidating, more demeaning.
Lynda Carson, who is a contributor to Street Spirit and other newspapers on economic issues, is herself a victim of these practices. Carson is representative of many other people in the same situation. She is poor, manages to get by on a very limited income — and would never be able to keep a roof over her head without the help of her Section 8 voucher. And here we come to the heart of this story. For the first time in many years, Carson is very worried.
Without any advance notice, the Oakland Housing Authority recently sent out packets containing 12 pages of "questions and demands" to about 10,000 families in Section 8 and public housing pro-grams in Oakland. "They've never done that before," Carson says.
Until this year, tenants would get a card in the mail notifying them that their inspection would take place in three or four weeks. They were asked to have documentation ready to verify their income and the amount of their utility bills. At the time of the inspection, they would be asked to sign a "section 214 form" on which they are asked to affirm under penalty of perjury that they are U.S. citizens or have legal immigration status. That has always been sufficient.
This year, without warning, tenants are confronted with a packet of formidable demands which are difficult, if not impossible, for some to meet. If they don't comply — and they are not given very much time to respond — they will be shown no mercy. They are warned: "FAILURE TO SUBMIT YOUR COMPLETE PACKET AND REQUIRED VERIFICATIONS WILL RESULT IN A BREACH OF YOUR PARTICIPATION OBLIGATIONS AND MAY CAUSE YOU TO LOSE YOUR SECTION 8 ASSISTANCE."
This is pretty scary for Carson and for many others because one of the "required verifications" is a certified copy of their birth certificate. Not so simple. Carson was adopted. She knows nothing about the circumstances of her birth or her biological parents; and she is far from being the only person among the thousands of Housing Authority clients facing this situation.
An estimated six million adoptees are in the United States; and for those who are in their thirties and older, birth information would be extraordinarily difficult to obtain. In most states, adoption records were sealed between the 1950s and 1970s; only recently a few states have passed laws to open records to adult adoptees. Even then, it will take considerable time and money to get a certified copy of the birth certificate, neither of which is avail-able for people in Carson's position.
The packet also contains a set of vague questions directed to clients who are elderly and disabled which would be laughable under other circumstances. Carson gives an example of one question which asks if the person has been involved in illegal activities. She points out that it's illegal for seniors to go to Canada to buy their medications.
Another element in the packet that many clients find objectionable is the requirement that they sign a release allowing the Housing Authority to share their information with the Department of Defense — a symptom of the paranoia sweeping the country these days, but certainly uncalled for as a condition to guarantee a roof over one's head! A cynic might interpret that as suspecting poor people who apply for government assistance of being potential terrorists.
Perhaps the most far-reaching demand is that each person have a photo ID. This has become a requirement, not only for people in Section 8 and public housing, but for access to many other social pro-grams and government agencies. This is another egregious burden that is being put on poor people. Not only adoptees, but people who have been homeless or incarcerated, are likely to have lost their documents, leaving them with no proper identification papers. Without the official ID, they are confronted with all sorts of barriers just to survive.
A 2004 survey by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) looked at 16 states over a period of one month and found significant numbers of people are being denied basic benefits because they do not have a photo ID. The numbers are shocking: 51 percent were denied SSI, 53 percent were denied food stamps, 31 percent were refused TANF benefits, 45 percent were denied medical services and 54 percent were not able to obtain housing or shelter services!
And there is a further, ugly twist to this. Without a photo ID, people cannot even enter many government buildings. The NLCHP report cites an example of a person not even being able to get into a federal building to apply for SSI.
Carson said she needed to go to the federal courthouse for some paperwork. "There's a guard at the front door demanding to look at everybody's photo ID," she said. "Mine was expired by a year and a half. I couldn't even get into the damn building!"
What does it really mean that her ID has expired? Carson presented her ID when she got into the Section 8 program back in 1991. "I'm still me," she says. "I still exist. Even if it's expired, why doesn't it still work?"
Getting a new photo ID card means a bureaucratic hassle, at best, and money, of which she has none to spare. She explains, "In Section 8 and public housing, there's a lot of people, like myself, who are getting older. A lot of definitely older African Americans in public housing probably haven't had or seen their birth certificates in years. Or like myself, their photo IDs may have lapsed. We're not really active in society; we've got our little world out there where we go to our normal check cashing places and every-body knows us. So we have this routine going and it works for us. Suddenly all these new hurdles come our way and we're not ready for them. And they put a deadline on it and by the time the deadline comes, if we're not prepared for them, it's off with our heads."
In addition to the new requirements described here, there are more and more demands being made of clients in housing and other social service programs. It is a frightening prospect for people who are already in a fragile situation. Nobody knows what further restrictions will be put in place, nor how many people will be cut out of programs by "attrition."
It is important, Carson says, to make the community more aware of the plight of those in our society who need help to survive. "We're speaking out," she says, "to make politicians and citizens more aware. I often urge people to call their representatives to oppose the budget cuts, and now would be the time to do so."
There is still time before the proposed budget cuts are finalized to contact our Congressional Representatives. Carson explains that the Democrats forced some technical changes in the current budget cutting bill so the House of Representatives will be voting on the bill one more time late in January. It's known as the budget reconciliation bill (S. 1932 and House Report 109-362).
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