Pa. cuts funding for Phila. program for the disabled homeless

Marsha Cohen , the Advocacy Project's executive director, said a month was not enough notice. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff
Marsha Cohen , the Advocacy Project's executive director, said a month was not enough notice. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff
Posted: August 25, 2012

The Corbett administration has cut funding for a Philadelphia program nationally lauded as the "gold standard" for helping disabled homeless people get federal benefits.

On May 31, the state's Department of Public Welfare gave Philadelphia's Homeless Advocacy Project one month's notice that it was eliminating $722,000 used to help obtain Supplemental Security Income (SSI) money for homeless or near-homeless people who had exceeded their five-year limit for welfare benefits.

Many of the people don't have the mental capacity to work. SSI provides disability income and benefits.

The Department of Public Welfare made the cut because the state is "reprioritizing" funding toward programs that emphasize work, DPW spokeswoman Carey Miller said. By taking money from the Homeless Advocacy Project, "we will be able to focus better on job placement and retention," Miller said.

Upset with the decision, Sister Mary Scullion, Philadelphia's nationally known homelessness expert, said cutting the program offers "a short-term gain for the state to save money."

"But there'll be long-term pain," she said, "as more people wind up in shelters, resorting to crime to get money for food, then winding up in prisons, now the largest mental hospitals in the United States."

Scullion said she did not understand why the state was eliminating a chance for people to access federal dollars that would be spent in the region, aiding the local economy. "It's counterproductive," she said.

The money that was cut had been used by the Advocacy Project to administer SOAR, a national program that streamlines and significantly speeds the SSI application process, which can normally take as long as two years.

SSI recipients can get as much as $698 a month, often enough to help a person get out of a homeless shelter and into an apartment, experts on homelessness say.

Through SOAR, the Advocacy Project got clients who had been on welfare approved for SSI benefits in an average of 32 days. That's the fastest rate in the country, according to data from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which administers SOAR nationwide.

In addition, 99 percent of the SOAR applications that the Advocacy Project submitted were approved, also the best rate in the country for a program of its size, SAMHSA figures showed.

The Advocacy Project obtained disability benefits for 566 clients worth a minimum of $381,484 monthly and $4,577,808 annually since 2009, said Marsha Cohen, the project's executive director. The project offers legal services to homeless people.

The project's successes were notable.

"The Philadelphia program is often used by SOAR trainers around the country as the gold standard for other programs to emulate," said Pamela Fischer, project officer in charge of SOAR for SAMHSA. "It's a quite effective program."

Pennsylvania's decision to cut the Advocacy Project's SOAR program runs counter to national trends, according to Deborah Dennis, project director for the National SOAR Technical Assistance Center in Upstate New York.

In fact, New Jersey, Utah, California, Minnesota, and other states are exploring ways SOAR can be used as an alternative to General Assistance to help disabled people get SSI benefits, Dennis said.

Several states have cut or are considering cutting General Assistance. Pennsylvania recently ended General Assistance. It had provided a safety net for poor people who didn't qualify for other public assistance. State officials said the program's elimination saved the state $150 million annually.

"Are they really cutting the project's funding for SOAR?" Dennis said. "It's sad. It's the best program in the country."

The funding cut was announced in a letter to Cohen from InspiriTec in Harrisburg, a firm that processes invoices for DPW.

The letter, obtained by The Inquirer, was similar to another sent by InspiriTec in the spring announcing that DPW was cutting funding to organizations that helped people get federal tax credits that kept them out of poverty.

Cohen complained that a month's notice was not enough time.

And, she added, five calls she has made to DPW officials have been unanswered.

DPW spokeswoman Anne Bale said that there was no record of Cohen's calling. Cohen bristled, saying "it's absolute nonsense" to think that an executive director who lost nearly $750,000 wouldn't call the agency that ended her funding.

What makes SOAR special is the speed with which it obtains SSI benefits for mentally disabled people in poverty. "It's the difference between a small commuter train that makes every stop and the Amtrak Acela nonstop to Boston," Cohen said.

Applying for SSI is daunting and often takes two years, according to John Whitelaw, an SSI expert and attorney with Philadelphia's Community Legal Services. People need reams of material, including letters and records from doctors, as well as numerous supporting documents, he added.

To expedite the rigorous process, the Advocacy Project used only lawyers and paralegals to help clients fill out the complex forms, Cohen said. This made for fewer mistakes.

The Advocacy Project also was better able to determine which clients would likely get SSI.

"They have an excellent screening process and produce a high-quality application," said Fischer, from SAMHSA. "The local Social Security office loves to get their applications. They're virtually perfect."

The project's work with SOAR made a huge difference in the life of a 31-year-old Northeast Philadelphia woman named Danielle. The Inquirer is withholding the woman's last name to protect her privacy. She was identified for the newspaper by the Advocacy Project.

Danielle has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder (multiple personalities) as well as posttraumatic stress disorder. She is a single mother of a 14-year-old daughter who no longer lives with her.

Not long ago, Danielle, who used to live on the streets, tried to kill herself by slitting her wrists.

Through the project's SOAR work, Danielle started receiving SSI benefits of $698 a month in 14 days. She also gets $205 a month in food stamps.

"I'm in an apartment now and independent," Danielle said. "I'm getting counseling, and I was able to have my daughter for the summer. SOAR gave me a second chance at life."

Without SOAR, Cohen said, women like Danielle "would have no recourse."

DPW is saying that another state program can help SOAR clients, but experts disagree.

"There's no replacement for it locally," said Roberta Cancellier, deputy director of the city's Office for Supportive Housing, which administers the shelter system in Philadelphia. "It's a spectacular program. I don't see any substitute."

Cohen, of the Advocacy Project, said that she and her staff had tried to teach state workers how to do the SOAR program in the past, but the effort failed because "they were doing such a slow, lousy job." The assigned state workers were not lawyers, which makes the difference in doing SOAR properly, Cohen said.

Mary Horstmann, deputy policy director for the city, said that the state's cuts to General Assistance make SOAR more important than ever. "It's hard to understand why you'd cut a program like that," she concluded.

Michele Levy, a lawyer with the project, added: "The state should be thrilled with us, getting people federal money and out of shelters to pay rent, buy food and contribute to the economy. Instead, they're cutting us just when we're needed most."


Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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