by Maria H. Lewytzkyj
- USA -
Every day in Sonoma County, Michelle Sanchez gets around in her wheelchair at Grosman Apartments in Santa Rosa, California. As a teenager, she hid her increasing equilibrium problems from her peers. Once she was even pulled over as she drove home after a shopper observed Michelle staggering inside a grocery store. Through tears of embarrassment, she explained to the officer that she had a neurological disorder and was not intoxicated.
Proposed Cuts and Quality of Life
Thousands of adults with disabilities like Michelle benefit from the often-unnoticed work of social service advocates. Like a recurring bad dream, instead of engendering public trust by showing support for critical services, the proposed state budget slashes will likely cut dependable social services that promote quality of life for the disabled.
The demand for services is high in Northern California. IHSS allows disabled adults to hire their friends and family as in-home caregivers, paid for by a variety of federal, state and county funds. SSI provides supplemental income to those who qualify and often makes up the difference when an elderly or disabled social security recipient does not receive the amount allotted by the annual distribution table. In Sonoma County that amount is $800; roughly 20% of the 8,000 people living on SSI in the county are seniors. With cuts in senior income, many elderly people relying on that income won't be able to meet their fixed expenses, like medicine for age-related illnesses and may need to return to work unwillingly.
Diane Kaljian, Sonoma County’s Adult and Aging Services Director says, "We are relieved that we know what the California budget is now. [But] if SSI is cut, it will affect both the elderly and disabled adults. A lot of low income women rely on SSI here."
Spokesperson for the San Francisco regional office of the Social Security Administration, Lowell Kepke, states, "Recent California budget cuts will not affect recipients. The real question is whether or not California will cut SSI." Although the State Controller's Office is delaying payments for many human services programs beginning this month, according to Mr. Kepke, "SSI/SSP payments will be unchanged for March and April. As far as all future dates, California will have to make a request for a change." It remains to be seen whether the state will request a cut to these payments in May.
For Michelle, any cuts to SSI and IHSS will affect her quality of life. "I certainly hope the cuts don’t pass. [Governor Schwarzenegger] has threatened to cut IHSS before. He's also suggested nursing homes [to replace in-home care].” Michelle's excellent quality of life is made possible by living independently in the comfort of her own home. Though her life has improved greatly from working with CCI and from the daily assistance that Lyndll provides, Michelle is unsure about the future.
What many disabled adults and social service providers want to know is – why dismantle something that is showing good results? Policymakers must ask themselves: do the risks associated with reduced funding for proactive interventions with proven results outweigh the band-aid solution of cutting spending on value adding programs?
The answer may lie just sixty miles away from the heart of Sonoma.
Mendocino County Makes a Difference
A 47-year old man arrives at the Mendocino County Health and Human Services Agency (MCDSS) and meets Pam Partee, a Social Security Advocate. As Jim* fills out his Social Security questionnaire, he says he walks three miles a day, but Pam can see otherwise. Even after a back operation he can barely walk, has curled toes, poor posture and is in obvious pain. She can see that her new client is a proud man; he tells her that he has never been on welfare before. She helps Jim overcome his embarrassment and guides him through the paperwork for the government grant that will help him rebuild his life.Pam works with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and CalWORKS, both of which provide Welfare-to-Work services and temporary cash grants to those who qualify.
“It’s trying to get people back on their feet,” says Pam. “Many have never felt plugged into life. They’ve gotten used to feeling marginalized. [But] buried under all the mental problems is what that person wants to do with their next step, whether it’s SSI, SSDI, working, sobriety, or stability.”
At MCDSS, a network of advocates and service providers like Pam fill in the gaps for disabled adults. Many are struggling with homelessness, poverty and substance abuse issues, or are dealing with depression, bipolar disorders or schizophrenia.
Before she began at MCDSS, Pam says there was a considerable backlog of severely disabled people who were not on Social Security or General Assistance. Since then, Pam has helped many of them move from the restrained negative lifestyles and feelings of worthlessness that they developed over years to invest in their own greater potential. She understands their needs and enjoys working with her clients from start to finish. “I assess whether or not they are ready to apply for any of the services. I encourage folks not to let the cash award stop them from looking for work in the future. I believe in total openness and an open door policy. I listen and I follow-up.”
MCDSS Adult Services Supervisor Mary Zigler recognizes how important attitudes like Pam’s are in her department where sheltering the homeless is their main goal. "Many don't know if they can live between four walls. They avoid social situations. My staff is conscientious and they help folks in the most dire situations,” Mary explains. “It's a never-ending job, [but] they are eager to [help]."
Mendocino County aims to create a community of safe and independent families and individuals, a goal the county’s advocates work towards tirelessly. They help their clients understand that success is a process, not a question of time, but a question of whether or not they are better off than when they started.
Pam and Mary have seen the stabilizing effects that their work has had on hundreds of clients. With the county's push for independent living, a reduction in funding for IHSS might translate to a huge step back on policy goals. "I think Schwarzenegger should come down to our level and visit the people who use IHSS,” says Mary, “and see how they live and what they go through."
Mendocino County’s unique rate of success with disabled adults speaks to the individualized start-to-finish emotional support and medical service that Social Services provides. Advocates like Pam and Mary are successful in their work because their interventions are valued within a system that is flexible and sensitive to the needs of its clients. Because they build relationships over time with each disabled adult they serve, they have the chance to actively work on client attitudes and beliefs. These practices sow the seeds of self-reliance and positive living that are the benchmarks of programmatic success.
California policymakers need to continue to promote these best practices and listen to the advice of advocates who are seeing good client results out in the community. If SSI/SSP cuts go through, more than 1.3 million Californians will be affected; 4,170 Mendocino recipients stand to lose a total of $4,260,000 in grant payments. Under current law, both federal and state payments for SSI/SSP recipients are adjusted for inflation each January. Given the current cost of living in Mendocino, the cuts will severely impact recipients and the services that are provided to them.
“It breaks our heart when [our clients] depend on us and we fail them,” says Pam. “If we can help them along, we help the community.”
Maria's article is part of our focus on disability issues. - Ed.
About the Author
Maria H. Lewytzkyj, a Ukrainian-American born in the US, is a Master's student in International Policy Studies at MIIS, specializing in international mediation and negotiations. She earned her Bachelor’s degree at San Francisco State University in English Literature. She has published articles on international conflicts, as well as health issues and the genocide in Ukraine.
Maria has kept a blog about Darfur on Myspace since April 2007 to keep people informed and bring attention to the plight of the crisis' innocent victims. Someday she hopes to do more advocacy, negotiation and mediation work for victims, helping them to lead fulfilling lives. In her spare time, Maria enjoys playing tennis and music, loves to travel, helps musicians with publicity and spends time with her friends.