SOAR: A solution to the wait
One recent workday morning, I was sitting at my desk and opened the Washington Post on my computer to find the story of Joe Stewart. Though Mr. Stewart lives in a small town in Mississippi, his story was so similar to the ones I hear from the clients I work with at Bread for the City. It was almost too hard to read. This quote, in particular, stuck out to me: “He hung up and shook his head, unable to handle the shame of it anymore. He had promised himself that if he was denied again, he’d no longer accept his mother’s help. He’d let his pills run out, and his trailer goes dark, and start drinking again. So much in his life depended on others now, from the television his brother had helped pay for, to the groceries delivered by his mother, who also took him wherever he needed to go, including on this morning to see his lawyer before his Social Security disability hearing.”
For individuals already experiencing debilitating physical or mental health conditions, the additional stress of not having income is dehumanizing. When people cannot work due to a long-term illness, many times the only option for a source of income is to apply for Social Security Disability Benefits (SSI or SSDI). When these benefits do not come timely, people cannot pay for rent, transportation, groceries or toilet paper. This inability to provide for one’s own basic needs has a profound effect on a person’s health and mental wellness.
At this time, if a person’s SSI/SSDI case is denied at the initial or reconsideration stages, the wait for a hearing in DC can be up to 18 months. As shown in the article, this long wait is common throughout the country due to a lack of funding to Social Security, as well as to an increase on the workload of the Social Security Administration due to an aging population.
At Bread for the City, our SOAR (SSI/SSDI, Outreach, Access, and Recovery) program helps people avoid the lengthy appeals process. We do this by using the SOAR model that is sponsored by SAMHSA. Nationally, the approval rate for an initial application is 28%. Last year, our SOAR program maintained a 78% approval rating for initial applications in an average of about 5 months. While there are difficult parts of my job, I am grateful for the resilient and brave people who trust me with their stories and allow me to walk with them through this difficult process. I am also grateful that, through SOAR, Bread for the City can dramatically reduce wait times and avoid lengthy appeals for this vital benefit.
Fortunately, even if the applications of our SOAR clients are denied at the initial or reconsideration stage, Bread for the City is extremely lucky to have our own expert attorney – Bruce Mayor, a volunteer attorney — who not only assists clients at these appeal stages but also treats them with dignity and respect. Bruce has helped over 200 District residents in 13 years of dedicated service through Bread for the City. His work alone has led to over $3.6 million in awarded benefits that not only helps those individual clients but infuses more money into our local economy.
While the numbers are important, Bruce offers much more to us than managing cases. Bruce is extremely patient, thoughtful and kind to our clients. He does not appear to have experienced the burnout the lawyer in the article described. Bruce represents people who may be feeling ashamed, tired of relying on others and extremely vulnerable to criticism. For this reason, having a supportive, caring person like him in their corner is so important. Finally, Bruce loves Bread for the City and the staff. He has provided countless hours of support to me and many others doing Social Security work. He asks us about our lives and remembers our families. He writes to staff members who have moved on. It’s hard to catch him without a smile on his face unless he’s staring at his computer. Thankfully, our city has many legal services providers who represent clients at Social Security hearings for free, but Bruce is ours, and we are so grateful for what he has done for Bread and for our clients.