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Field Notes

Social Security inaction puts neediest of the needy on the brink

Social Security inaction puts neediest of the needy on the brink
The closing of Safety Net of Oregon has put people receiving disability checks from Social Security at risk.
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It hasn’t always been this hard for Charles Vaughn.

In his mid-40s and based in Alabama, Vaughn worked for FEMA as an emergency responder. He helped people recover from Katrina. He was on the ground for the aftermath of several tropical storms.

About four years ago, he went through a divorce. FEMA apparently gave him the opportunity to relocate. He picked Portland as his new home.

The circumstances that brought him here are not 100 percent clear because soon after arriving, Charles suffered a traumatic brain injury. Much is gone from his memory.

The man who had been there to help others is now in the position of needing help to get by day to day.

About a year ago, with the help of case worker Emily Smith, Charles applied for and started receiving disability checks from Social Security.

He is one of more than 100,000 Oregonians who receive those checks.

Many of those people - Charles included - don't have family or friends nearby to help them manage their money. Because their disability makes it almost impossible for them to manage their finances, Social Security requires them to get help from a third party.

For Charles and about 1,000 others around Portland, that third party has been an organization on Morrison in Southeast Portland called Safety Net of Oregon.

They would receive his $721 check each month and dole it out as he needed it. There would be money for medication, for food, for laundry.

Last week, Emily Smith brought Charles to the Safety Net offices to get some of that money.

“He really wanted to get his laundry done,” Smith says. “He also needed some money for a doctor appointment and food.”

And here’s where Charles’s most recent problems develop.

Arriving at Safety Net, Charles and Emily were met at the door by two people: a uniformed officer and an employee of the Social Security Administration.

“Are you a client?” the officer asked Charles.

When Charles said yes, the officer informed him that Safety Net was being shut down and he would need a new organization to handle his finances.

The Social Security employee then handed him a flyer and informed him there would be an open house at the Social Security office where a new organization would be signing people up.

It turns out that on March 6, agents from Social Security’s Inspector General’s Office executed a search warrant at Safety Net, walking off with files and computers.

They are trying to make sense of Safety Net’s finances. There is now a sign on the office door informing people they will be out of business as of April 1.

In the meantime, Charles is looking for help making sense of his.

“This is a bad time for this to happen,” says Smith.

After nearly four years on the street, Charles is close to being able to get into a subsidized apartment.

Part of the process of getting into a subsidized apartment is proving you need the subsidy; that you have an income, but not too much.

So Smith brought Charles to the Social Security office to get his income verification.

“Because Safety Net was suspended and he had not yet signed up for a new organization, they had his income as zero,” says Smith. “His social security had been suspended.”

While things look like they are going to work out for Charles - he will have a new organization managing his money, his social security will be reinstated, he will likely get into the apartment - it is in large part because he has Smith to help him navigate the system.

He is in the minority.

Most of the people receiving disability checks from Social Security who depend on organizations like Safety Net are among the neediest of the needy.

In many cases they are homeless or near homeless. I spoke to one lawyer whose client sleeps on the porch of a friend.

In some cases, they have failed themselves, falling to drugs or other addictions.

In many cases, they are like Charles - people who are disabled from birth or from injury.

And what did the Social Security Administration do to make sure the shutdown of Safety Net wouldn’t leave them hurting more than they already are?

A spokesman says they sent letters and called.

Here’s the thing - many of these people are homeless. Many don’t have phones.

Smith says Charles had a cell phone at one point but didn’t know what to do with it.

Many of these people are disabled to the point where even if they had received a letter from Social Security, they likely would not have known what it meant.

Multnomah County’s Division of Aging and Disability - the office that deals with many of these people - reached out to Social Security with an offer to help track them down.

They didn’t even get a call back until after I called Social Security to ask what was going on.

The deadline for clients of Safety Net to find a new organization to look after their finances is March 21. If they don’t meet that deadline, their Social Security will be cut off until they find a new organization.

That will mean no money for food, rent, medication, laundry, doctor’s appointments. You get the picture.

It’s not known how many clients have been reached, how many have no idea what’s coming.

“To put the onus on those barely able to take care of themselves, to put it on people incapable of taking care of themselves is just wrong,” says Smith.

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