After living at Oakbrook Apartments in Vancouver for eight years, roommates Steven Doble and Faith are packing their things into cardboard boxes. Unable to pay their rent, they got an eviction summons in late December.
Doble and Faith, who asked to go by her middle name for safety reasons, can’t pack much by themselves — both are physically disabled, Doble walking with a cane and Faith with a walker. Doble, 54, has polycystic kidney disease, an inherited disorder that required him to get his kidneys removed. He gets hooked up to a dialysis machine three times per week for periods of about four hours each.
A machinist by trade, Doble tried to keep working after starting dialysis in 2013. But in an industry that’s defined by productivity, his employers had to let him go.
“Working 10-hour days and then trying to dialyze four — I wasn’t getting any sleep, my kidneys were getting worse,” he said. “My kidneys were seven pounds apiece, the size of footballs. It just got to the point to where I was having to take too much time off.”
Faith similarly lost her job due to her disabilities. She worked as a medical technician and caregiver before suffering a back injury five years ago, which she needed three surgeries to fix.
HOW TO GET HELP
If you are homeless or at risk of homelessness and want help applying for disability income benefits, contact SOAR Coordinator Morgan Leatherman at 206-474-4901 or email@example.com.
If you are disabled and experiencing homelessness, call the Council for the Homeless Housing Hotline at 360-695-9677.
She’s since been diagnosed with three types of neuropathies, Type 2 diabetes and a heart abnormality. She has a full-time caregiver, and her pill bottles take up an entire drawer in her home.
Doble applied for Social Security disability benefits in 2013. It took four months to get signed up, he said, and he found the process to be relatively easy.
Faith’s process, however, has been far from easy. She applied for Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Insurance in spring of 2021. Her application has been in review for more than a year, with no word of when it might be approved.
Without disability benefits, she can’t pay her portion of the rent. When she searched for low-income housing, she learned the wait could be up to three years. She’s reached out to Council for the Homeless, but the agency isn’t able to provide assistance beyond the rent assistance it had previously provided unless she is, by definition, “literally homeless.”
“I was told, until I become homeless, that there’s nothing out there for help for me right now,” she said.
Homelessness is a real possibility for Faith. Doble, if evicted, plans to move in with his sister while looking for more permanent housing. Faith has nowhere to go but her car. Her four cats make finding shelter even more challenging.
“If I’m living in my car, of course I’m not gonna be able to have a caregiver,” she said. “I can drive myself to my doctor’s appointments … but other than that, I’ll probably be living on sandwiches.”
Faith is just one of more than 1 million people nationwide waiting on Social Security disability benefits. The Social Security Administration has been experiencing massive backlogs for its disability programs since the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the administration’s employees have quit, causing House and Senate Democrats to call for funding increases to hire more staff.
In 2021, 1,820,282 disabled workers applied for federal Social Security disability benefits, according to the Social Security Administration. In the same year, the administration awarded benefits to 571,952 applicants — 31.4 percent of applications received.
The national SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access and Recovery program, or SOAR, helps people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness apply for disability income benefits.
Last fiscal year, Clark County SOAR providers submitted 28 applications to the Social Security Administration. In that period, only about five applications were approved — and those approved had been submitted before the last fiscal year, according to Tiffany Hayes, Clark County’s SOAR supervisor.
Before the pandemic, Social Security staff would keep SOAR providers updated on application statuses. “Now, it’s just like, we’re not hearing anything at all,” Hayes said, noting that it takes at least 10 months for an application to be approved. “It’s been really frustrating, because we have people that are literally on the streets homeless.”
She doesn’t fault Social Security employees for these problems, she said. She thinks the issue stems from the administration’s underfunding and staffing shortages.
The Social Security Administration is analyzing factors contributing to the backlog, including difficulty hiring, high turnover of Disability Determination Services employees and shortages of medical experts to review cases, according to Shayla Hagburg, Social Security communications director for the Seattle region.
“Social Security is taking a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach to reduce the backlog of disability cases that developed during the pandemic,” Hagburg wrote in an email response. The approach involves a “hiring surge” to address attrition among state disability examiners, among other actions.
Though SOAR can’t speed up the process, it’s comforting for clients to know that at least someone is advocating for them, said Clark County SOAR Coordinator Morgan Leatherman.
“Even just having somebody to talk to at least once or twice a month to say, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on, this is where I’m at,’ is so helpful,” Leatherman said. “I don’t know how people do it by themselves. I really don’t.”
In Leatherman’s experience, poor communication from Social Security is a big issue when it comes to getting benefits. She spends her time emailing and calling the administration, trying to get updates. She recently called to check up on an application and was told that a piece was missing. “And I’m like, ‘Well, nobody was able to contact us to let us know,’” she said.
When applications are denied — as a majority are the first time around — re-applying becomes another lengthy process. The average processing time for disability reconsideration was 147 days in 2021, according to the Social Security Administration.
“Typically, people get denied because there’s lack of communication, there’s lack of medical records, the paperwork that they’re asking for, people can’t get to them in time,” Leatherman said. Many clients also have mental health issues, which is a “huge barrier” when it comes to communication and timeliness, she added.
People who are homeless face even more barriers when applying. They typically don’t have a reliable mailing address, making it difficult to gather the necessary documents. SOAR allows people to use its office for mailing if needed.
Keeping up with doctor’s appointments and medical record-keeping is also “virtually impossible” while homeless, said Johanna Karnoski with Council for the Homeless’ Pathways program, which helps homeless seniors navigate health care and other social services. Without consistent records, applicants have less proof of their disability, and it is more likely that their application will be denied.
Another Catch-22 for homeless applicants is their employment history, according to Heather Sheppard, Council for the Homeless systems integration manager.
“Folks are supposed to be not working in order to prove their disability,” Sheppard said. “But if they’re living outside, or inside for that matter, how do you survive by not working? So folks will pick up jobs and work through their pain, and then that counts against them.”
The wait continues
Delays in receiving Social Security benefits are leading more and more people like Doble and Faith to homelessness. The Area Agency on Aging and Disabilities of Southwest Washington has seen a “dramatic increase” in calls from people who are at risk of homelessness, facing eviction or needing affordable housing, according to Community Services Supervisor Breanne Swanson.
“We are seeing a lot of seniors and people with disabilities who were protected from eviction or rent increases thanks to protections put in place during the pandemic,” Swanson said in an email response. “However, those protections have expired and people are experiencing substantial rent increases.”
This is true for Doble and Faith, who were previously able to pay their rent using pandemic rental assistance programs. Now, that safety net is gone.
“We’re hearing from people who are doing everything right, and have been waiting for years for affordable or subsidized housing,” Swanson noted.
Between coping with his disability and the stress of eviction, Doble has found himself fighting depression. “I’m sad,” he said. “I’m upset that people with disabilities can’t get help sooner and faster.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.