Out in the Cold
In December, Edgar Lee received his last Supplemental Security Income (SSI) check. His SSI benefits used to provide an income of $470 a month plus food stamps. But under federal law he's not eligible anymore because a narcotics addiction contributes to his inability to work. Since Lee was cut off, he had to move out of his apartment and take up residence on the streets. He now sleeps in a homeless shelter that the city of Madison, Wisconsin, says is at more than triple capacity. "It took me eighteen months to get on SSI," says Lee, who received his first check in 1993. "I applied for disability because of my health, but I put down that I had a drug and alcohol problem also. It doesn't seem fair to be punished for that."In a small office at a homeless men's drop-in shelter, the fifty-three-year-old Lee rests his hands on the cane he uses to get around because of degenerative arthritis in his hip.He explains why he left the Chicago projects in search of a better life. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Lee ran up a long criminal record, went through several unsuccessful rehabilitation attempts using methadone, and only sporadically held legal jobs.But recently, he says, he successfully got himself off drugs. So he appealed the suspension of his SSI, but lost because authorities say his arthritis doesn't preclude all forms of work. Now, he says, he'll try to get jobs at McDonald's or a car wash."It would be really beneficial if I could find some employment," says Lee. "I'm going to stay here until I exhaust my avenues. But I may have to go back to Illinois and pursue, well, you know, the criminal things I did before. I want to survive."Lee is one of 196,698 people nationwide who, because of the law that went into effect on January 1, stand to lose their SSI benefits. That figure includes roughly 40,000 who have lost Social Security disability benefits that were tied to an alcohol or drug disability.These cuts, passed on March 29, 1996, were part of the Contract with America. Republicans argued that SSI checks were fueling addictions. Advocates for the cuts also looked forward to a $300 million savings.Lee and others received notice last June that in order to retain their benefits they would have to ask for a "redetermination" and prove that they have another disability that prevents them from working. So far, 135,000 people have filed appeals. The government granted 53,000 and denied 52,000, according to Social Security Administration spokesperson Tom Margenau. Another 30,000 appeals are still pending.Donn Lind works for Legal Action, which provides services to low-income clients in southern Wisconsin. He has about fifteen clients with "Drug-Addiction/Alcoholism" labels attached to their SSI files, and he has seen how harsh the climate is now for these clients. In one case, a judge ruled that the man who had filed an appeal was disabled. However, the judge also decided that if the plaintiff weren't an alcoholic, he would be able to work, so the judge rejected the appeal.Lind says dual diagnoses, such as alcoholism in combination with mental illness or depression, are common. "The problem is, unless we can get a period of sobriety or abstinence, it's very difficult for a mental-health worker to determine what is causing the problems," says Lind. "A judge is going to assume the disability is AODA [alcohol and other drug abuse] related, unless you can prove otherwise."In October, Bonita Brooks, a thirty-eight-year-old mother of three grown children, received her last SSI check. Due to a complication with her case, her checks stopped early even though she'd filed an appeal.When Brooks first received SSI in 1992, several factors made it hard for her to hold a steady job. She has a bipolar disorder that causes manic depression, and at the time she was addicted to crack. She's kicked the drug habit, and last month Brooks says she filled out dozens of work applications -- mostly for dishwashing jobs -- but got no offers. She guesses it was because she had to admit on the applications that she has a felony conviction."I've been clean for a year and seven months, but I still need to talk to my psychiatrist and take my medication," says Brooks, who hasn't been able to get medication since her SSI was cut. "Stopping the money doesn't bother me, but they stopped the medical part, too." She says her drug addiction was closely linked to her depression, but lengthy waiting lists have kept her out of free group counseling. "I'm not giving up," she says. "The main thing is to keep fighting and to keep my dignity."Abuses in the SSI system helped fuel the crackdown. Television documentaries showed states where welfare workers claimed checks were feeding recipients' addictions. Previous reforms had required that a payee -- an individual required to supervise the clients' spending -- be put in place as a safeguard for any SSI recipients with drug or alcohol problems. And benefits were cut if treatment was available and the recipients refused it.But in some states, people managed to skirt the reforms. In Colorado, beneficiaries were caught using bartenders as payees; other states failed to apply the "Drug Addiction/Alcoholism" label or didn't have all the checks in place.In Wisconsin, all recipients of Supplemental Security checks had a payee, and compliance was supervised by a state agency that conducted urine and blood tests, oversaw payees, and required rehabilitation.Because of Wisconsin's efficiency, a larger number of people are being cut off, though abuse of the previous system was not a problem. All applicants were asked about drug and alcohol problems. If they responded affirmatively, their files were tagged "Drug Addiction/Alcoholism." As a result, 4,459 Wisconsinites face a cutoff.On the other end of the spectrum, Louisiana lists only eighteen Drug Addiction/Alcoholism cases. But rather than beef up requirements in states that were lax, Congress decided simply to end SSI for all people with disabling alcohol and drug problems.Homeless shelters and community- meals programs are getting crowded. And local units of government -- especially counties that run jails, hospitals, and emergency or general relief -- are worried the costs of caring for former SSI recipients will hit them hard, as the burden of caring for destitute addicts is shifted to the local level. Frank Mecca, executive director of the California Welfare Directors Association, told The Washington Post that the counties in California expect to pay an additional $45 million in general-assistance payments alone because of SSI cuts.SSI recipients were given at least a six-month warning that cuts were coming, but the news didn't spur many people with alcohol or drug problems to action. Mitch Vesaas, program director at Tellurian, a treatment center and shelter that serves people with alcoholism and mental illnesses, explains that this lack of response is often a part of the disease."Usually with alcoholism there's a co-occurring disability, mostly depression," says Vesaas. "If you have alcoholism, there's a huge emptiness, a numbness, and bad news is no different than other news."Vesaas guesses that removing the SSI safety net may push a few people to get treatment and find a job. But the flip side will be cases like Terry McGovern, the daughter of one-time Democratic Presidential candidate George McGovern, who froze to death in a drunken haze in Madison after a life-long battle with alcoholism. George McGovern is dedicating a good deal of his time these days to trying to help the public understand the complexities of alcoholism. He sees this legislation as evidence that he has his work cut out for him."It means that members of Congress who voted for that legislation still don't understand that alcoholism is a disease, and a fatal disease if it's not treated," says McGovern. "I regard it as the number-one health problem in this country." He acknowledges that treatment often fails, as it did with his daughter, but he points out that the same can be said in the case of cancer or heart disease."This just means that a lot of people will continue in their disease," McGovern concludes. "I'm positive it will have a negative effect on getting people into recovery."As Vesaas sees it, cutting people with alcoholism off SSI is discriminatory: "To us alcoholism is a disease, and you don't cut someone off who is blind. But the Congress decided it isn't like being blind. They decided it was a case of moral will, that people choose to be alcoholic."Ann, a thirty-six-year-old Madison resident who asked that her last name not be used, has been an alcoholic since she was a teenager. By the age of twenty-six she'd held thirty different jobs and spent time living on the street in Milwaukee. When Ann received the letter saying her SSI would be cut, she misplaced it. "I lose a lot of things," she admits.After a few months, she tried to prepare for the cut by getting a job at a pizza parlor that didn't check her references. She also filed an appeal, which is pending. Ann planned to live on the street for a few months before it got cold to save money. But she "had a slip" and couldn't hold the job. Another slip last month led to a week-and-a-half drinking binge that landed her in the hospital with a $400 bill. This one was covered by Medicaid, which comes with her SSI.Next time, she knows, she may not be so lucky. For Ann, one of the scariest implications of losing SSI is that she'll also lose the insurance. She has no idea what will happen with her appeal."If I get cut," she says, "I'm eventually going to be homeless again."Cash grants, food stamps, and insurance aren't the only losses former SSI recipients face. Catherine Wilcox-Nash, a licensed social worker, serves as a payee for five people on SSI. She receives the checks, pays their rent and bills, and gives them a weekly stipend that averages $30."When I see them once a week to give them money, I usually go into their home," she says. "I poke my nose around and tell them that they need to wash their dishes so they don't get bugs, or tell them to clean up so the landlord won't evict them. I work really hard to keep them remotely stable." Cutting the checks will end the recipients' contact with most payees, who can be a stabilizing force."These people are going to end up in jail or back on the streets, or they're going to freeze to death," says Wilcox-Nash. "I don't understand what they expect these people to do. It's pretty darn cruel. Our government does not encourage people to survive."She guesses most people will be able to last for a few months living with friends, until summer when they can live outside -- so the full impact may not be felt until next fall when it starts to get cold again. And by that time, there will be further cuts.Last August, President Bill Clinton signed the Welfare Reform Act, stipulating that come August 1997, all noncitizens will be cut off SSI and the definition of disability for children will be redefined to eliminate checks for kids with maladaptive disorders, such as attention-deficit disorder and other learning disabilities. (The new definition of disability for children is still being crafted, but Supplemental Security Administration spokes-person Margenau estimates that between 100,000 to 200,000 children stand to lose SSI.)Mary Ann Cook, a human-services supervisor in Madison, says many families -- especially Asians and Latinos -- are going to be hit with multiple cuts in SSI, food stamps, and Medicaid. In some states these families will lose other welfare benefits as a result of various state welfare-reform initiatives. The cumulative effects could be extreme. Says Cook: "Granny could lose her SSI, children's aid could be eliminated, Mom may lose AFDC, and food stamps could be discontinued -- all in one family."Left with no public assistance and no job-transition program, former Chicago resident Lee isn't certain he'll be able to turn his life around, even though he's managed to kick his drug addiction. "If you cut me off and there's no job available, what am I going to do? I don't have no skills. What do you got to replace this? I don't have a problem working for myself, but if you're going to cut me off, give me a job. Right now it's like I'm in an ocean with no lifeboat on down the line. It's sink or swim."