The Connundrum of Accessing Social Services: Control, rules, and authority

There are a lot of agencies, organizations, and programs designed to assist people and families that are experiencing subsistence level needs of all kinds. Government administered programs through county, city, and state offices such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrtional Assistance Program or “Food Stamps”), TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (Cash Assistance or “Welfare”), Medicaid (OHP/OHP Plus and other health care coverage administered by the state), and ERDC (Employment Related Day Care assistance) are the most common programs thought of, but there are many others. Other programs are administered through community based social service agencies and CDCs (Community Development Corporations) such as Human Solutions, LifeWorks Northwest, and Hacienda CDC are just a few.

It can be quite overwhelming for a family experiencing life crises, especially crises that are economic in nature, to know where to start or how to deal with the complex and seemingly arbitrary rules associated with accessing the services. If family members have been exposed to, grew up in, or have prejudicial attitudes toward those who access government benefits and assistance, it can be even more challenging. For families which have been caught up in generational patterns and cycles of poverty, it can be even worse because of the stigma and prejudices that are so widely prevalent in all forms of media. The degree of stigma, judgment, prejudice, and negative assumptions is very disheartening, demeaning, and undermining of people who genuinely are trying to find a way to dig themselves out of entrenched poverty cycles and for those who find themselves, for the first time in their lives falling into that trench.

Today, I want to address those who find themselves in the unenviable position of needing to ask for help through these programs and agencies.

Asking for help, regardless of the reason for needing the help, is a position most people find themselves in at one point or another in their lives. Everyone makes a mistake, makes a wrong decision, or encounters unexpected events they weren’t prepared for. It’s a fact of life. Some people are educated, trained, equipped, and have the cognitive, emotional, spiritual, and psychological strengths to navigate these things with minimal externally visible effects. Many people are not prepared and may experience any combination of things which combine together in ways that show unmistakable effects, often identified as negative.

If you are someone who is feeling overwhelmed with panic and axiety about your circumstances and who has experienced a lot of hardship and difficulty, reaching out to strangers behind a counter and having to explain your need for their assistance can feel like you are walking into the lion’s den. I’ve been in your situation. I understand what it feels like to fill out packets of forms, then get interviewed and have to explain the answers on the forms. I know, firsthand, the conflicting feelings of defensiveness and desperation, which make you second and third guess every word that comes from your mouth as you watch every eye twitch and body shift of the person you are being interviewed by to determine how they may be judging you and and your words.

I think one of the biggest problems for those of us needing to ask for assistance from these programs is the fact that we are required to disclose every detail and facet of our personal information and provide documentation that we are who we say we are, then justify the fact that we are in a position needing assistance. We often face people who may see tens to hundreds of faces like ours with stories like ours, day in and day out, and our stories and circumstances are not unique in their experience. So, they become numb, jaded, and immune to what we are experiencing emotionally. They appear bored, indifferent, jaded, cynical, matter of fact, and uncaring a lot of the time. There is little to no empathy or compassion displayed and while they may say they understand, they do little to demonstrate that understanding of what we are experiencing.

Somehow, being in the position of requesting assistance, subverts our rights to privacy, autonomy, and independent action. We become accountable to the rules, guidelines, and policies, because they are the rules, guidelines, and policies and these people are the gatekeepers who get to say whether or not we are worthy of being assisted, after we have submitted to full disclosure and full exposure of our most sensitive selves. We become serfs, supplicating ourselves, at the feet of beaurocratic cogs in the system of funding streams, political posturing, and edicts established by highly educated academic theoreticians in think tanks who have little to no direct personal experience with the kind of subsistence and hardship we have gone through which brought us through the doors.

So, people who are feeling the heat of societal stigma, subjected to indifferent and seemingly uncaring administrators, while experiencing stressful and disruptive life-circumstances, who may not be experienced or equipped with effective communication and social skills, are expected to act in rational, compliant ways to make the jobs of those who are processing their requests easier, with little or no expectation that the person they are dealing with is equipped or experienced at interacting with the same level of communication and social skill competency they are expected to have.

Social Work Cartoon: Client, service user, what’s his name?

Do you see the conundrum?

Homeless in Portland

Portland is a wonderfully eclectic place to live in. There is something for everyone, regardless of lifestyle, religious affiliation (or lack thereof), race, ethnicity, or country of origin. It’s the home of tree huggers and digital industrialists alike. It’s also Hollywood’s newest, Hipster cousin: home of television series like Portlandia and Grimm, as well as a key location for filming movies such as The Hunted, Untraceable, and Extraordinary Measures. Portland is an amazing place to live.

That being said, Portland also has it’s darker aspects. On April 23, 2013, Dana Tims of The Oregonian reported:

Homelessness in Multnomah County, particularly among veterans, families, women, and adults with disabilities, is dire and likely getting worse. . .

In terms of comparisons, Multnomah County appears to have higher numbers of homeless families than similar areas elsewhere, . . . The percentage of homelessness here is higher than King County, Wash., San Francisco and Hennepin County, Minn. — an area often held up as a model for combating homelessness. . .

The 2,666 homeless families counted in Multnomah County in 2011, she said, dwarfed the 635 homeless families counted in San Francisco that same year. ~ Multnomah County homelessness problem dire and likely to get worse, experts say


A local homeless man gathering up his sleeping gear after spending the night under shelter in front of a store. (c) 10/02/2013, lem

People huddle in blankets and sleeping bags under the covered areas of storefronts, churches, and public parks after businesses close and passersby, who are likely to shun, complain, or harass the homeless retire to their homes. The covered areas beneath Portland’s numerous bridges and overpasses, along with the biking and hiking areas containing trees and foliage have makeshift communities of all ages, from all backgrounds which have continued to grow in number.

Private non-profit community service agencies such as Human Solutions have started operating Warming Centers during the worst of the winter weather. According to their website:

Family homelessness is a genuine concern in our community. The January 26, 2011 One Night Shelter Count identified 5,220 homeless people in Multnomah County. Of those 5,220 homeless people, 2,784 were people in families, including 1,602 children under the age of 18. People in homeless families, including infants and children, made up over half (53%) of all the homeless people in the count.

Some shelter programs do not have the capacity to keep families together, separating genders above certain ages, meaning husbands and fathers are not able to share the same quarters as their families and adolescent sons have to fend for themselves in overwhelming and frightening circumstances. Warming Centers for families open during the winter months, usually during the worst weather months, November through March or April. Several shelter programs are only available to women and their children who are fleeing domestic violence, which is needed, but may cause desperate mothers and fathers to misrepresent their situations in order to provide safe shelter for their children, because there aren’t enough resources to serve the increasing number of homeless families.

One family shelter that I am aware of, which keeps families together while providing structured services, like life-skills training, to help families transition from homelessness and instability into obtaining their own housing and sustainable self-sufficiency, is My Father’s House, located in Gresham, OR.

My oldest two children and I were residents in an earlier incarnation of the program, ten years ago, during the Summer of 2003. Since then, the program has grown from housing five families at a time in five bedrooms of a conjoined duplex, which also housed the administrative office and class/meeting room, to owning a 20,000 square foot facility that can house up to 30 families. They are currently in the process of building transitional apartment housing for 12 single-mother families who have graduated their main shelter program.

My Father’s House is not an immediate entry emergency shelter; meaning, a homeless family cannot simply show up on the doorstep on a first come, first serve basis and have a place to sleep that night. There is an intake process which starts with a phone call to, (503) 492-3046.

Homelessness and poverty in Portland, in America, is, in my personal opinion, reaching epidemic proportions. The causes, effects, and co-related factors are complex, multi-layered, and require that every individual within the community set aside assumptions, prejudices, and judgment. It also requires that every one of us take personal ownership of creating solutions and creating change where we live and not relying on elected officials, community service organizations, and churches to help “those” people. You would be surprised that many of “those” people are co-workers, classmates of your children, and the fast food worker who is cleaning up the debris left on the tables and floors because “that’s their job.”

The stigma of being poor and homeless and the criticism of people needing to access government funded services pushes people into hiding their need from others. Perhaps, if we all figured out what we could do, where we are at with the resources we do have, there would be less reliance on government. Even those of us who may be on the verge of homelessness ourselves, still have something to offer or share, whether it’s time, or just reaching out to offer a hug, a smile, or a listening ear.

When everyone is sinking in quicksand and it’s every man for himself – no one gets out. Let’s reach out to our fellow human beings and citizens and help each other to get up and get out of poverty and homelessness.