Poor Richard's Almanac

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Welfare reform in the 1990s has been about “reforming” the people who get public benefits, making them take responsibility, making them job ready. It has not addressed the more traditional definition of good-government reform: making the system more effective, more efficient, more responsive.

This summer, Lauren Grover, a Cornell University student interning at the office of Public Advocate Mark Green, took on the deceptively simple task of helping one welfare client smooth out a few minor bureaucratic problems. She and the client, Richard Vessells, ended up spending their whole summer on the project. What follows are excerpts from Grover's journal. They tell a revealing story about a bureaucracy for which true reform is not even on the agenda.

June 3: Today I learned about Richard's case. He is a full-time student, pursuing an Associate degree in communications at Borough of Manhattan Community College and working part-time in the admissions office. He is also homeless, living with friends temporarily and applying to the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) for an apartment.

Richard is on Home Relief and receives a grant of $201 a month. A government scholarship covers the cost of his tuition, his office job covers books, and he is eligible for Food Stamps, but so far has been unable to get them. He depends on the public assistance money to meet most of his daily expenses. But last week ,Richard was dropped from the rolls.

June 5: It took four phone calls over two days to reach Richard's caseworker at the Human Resources Administration (HRA). When I did, I learned Richard's benefits were discontinued due to “a failure to recertify.” A letter asking him to come in for a face-to-face interview was sent to his city-assigned post office box. Richard did not see it in time. The post office is miles from where Richard is staying and far from school. Since the trip can take one to two hours out of his school day, Richard tries to do it only once a week.

By the time Richard saw the HRA letter, his benefits had been cut off. The only way to get his benefits reinstated will be to get a “fair hearing” from HRA.

Richard also told me that his NYCHA housing application was held out of the queue because a form was missing. After three phone calls to different departments, I found people at NYCHA familiar with Richard's case. Still, it took a half dozen more phone calls to finally ascertain that NYCHA needed Richard to take a drug test before it would put him on the list. Richard attempted to get the test done, but he was turned away for reasons his health center doctor would not explain.

June 9: I called HRA to schedule a fair hearing for Richard. I tried three different numbers before I found the fair hearing line. After getting a busy signal six different times throughout the day, I got through and sat on hold for 45 minutes before someone picked up. After giving the relevant information, I was told that scheduling a hearing would take “at least eight weeks.” After my protest, the worker said that since Richard is homeless, he could have a “next available” appointment–in five to six weeks.

I called around and was able to find the name of the director of fair hearings. I then faxed him a letter on the public advocate's behalf. This yielded an earlier date of June 26.

After calling Richard's doctor for the last three days, I heard back. She told me Richard needed to bring in an “official form” from NYCHA explaining why he needed a drug test. I called Richard to tell him this; he said he brought this form to the health center the first time, but the doctors wouldn't accept it. Assuming it was no longer useful, Richard had thrown it away. I then called NYCHA to ask if I could pick up another copy. I was told to come in, so I went to NYCHA's office at 250 Broadway. After waiting for an hour, I was told they couldn't give me anything without Richard present.

June 10-11: I figured it would be a wise precaution to talk with Richard's health center to be sure we were getting the appropriate form. The medical director called me back to say that the center needed the form and, incidentally, that it had to be dated the same week the test was requested. The next day, I talked to NYCHA and found out that Richard must have the test done by July 30th or his housing application would be dropped.

June 16: I called Richard to explain that he needed the drug test form from NYCHA stamped with the current date. He said he would get it. Richard took the day off from work and spent most of it at NYCHA waiting to get his form stamped.

June 19: Form in hand, Richard went to the health center to get his drug test. There he learned he couldn't have the test done without Medicaid–which he had lost when his public assistance benefits were cut off. He made a new appointment for July 7th, cutting close to NYCHA's July 30th deadline.

I received Richard's fair hearing notice and called his caseworker to see if he could review his record beforehand. After being transferred several times, I learned that his case had been transferred to someone else, though Richard had not been notified. The new caseworker told me that the record–which Richard is allowed to see by law–was unavailable as it was being prepared for the fair hearing.

June 26: Today Richard had his fair hearing. He had already been waiting for an hour when I arrived at 80 Centre Street at 9:30 a.m. We waited for another hour before being called into a set of side chambers with about 15 or 20 others. A state Department of Social Services representative informed Richard and the rest of the group that the welfare center hadn't provided enough evidence to justify dropping them from the rolls. Richard's benefits were ordered to be restored within 10 business days.

July 2: Richard misplaced his public assistance identification card, which he needs to withdraw benefits and access his post office box. I called his new caseworker. This time it took five calls to get her on the line. She told me that to get a new card, Richard would first have to go to the income maintenance center on the Lower East Side, and then to a midtown office to pick it up. She then said she would give him an appointment, but when she checked her computer, she saw his case was still closed and refused. I explained that he had won a fair hearing decision and his benefits would be restored shortly. She said she would not see him until her computer said his case was open.

Meanwhile, Richard's housing situation had become dire. His friend had asked him to leave as soon as possible.

July 8: I spoke to Richard, who told me the doctor was not at the health center yesterday, the day of his appointment. So he is still without the test NYCHA needs. I called the health center myself and made a new appointment for July 11.

Richard started classes again, from 1 to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday. He is now bouncing around almost nightly, staying with friends, relatives, and church members, trying to avoid the shelter system until he can get a place of his own.

July 10: I left several messages with Richard's doctor, telling her that his Medicaid still had not been restored, but I hoped she would do the test anyway. She called me back to remind me that the NYCHA form he had would no longer be valid–it was now two weeks out of date. I told her I couldn't believe she would force Richard to go back to NYCHA simply to get his form stamped again. I pleaded with her and finally I got an an assurance that she would do the test with the form Richard had already fought so hard to get.

July 11: Richard finally got his test, but learned he could not pick up the results until he could prove that Medicaid would pay the bill. This is not his only problem with the health system. Richard is a diabetic and has been unable to get his prescriptions filled. He is running very low on the pills he relies on to control the disease and is worried.

July 14: It has been more than two weeks since Richard's hearing and his benefits still remain in limbo. The new caseworker has been extremely difficult to reach. Both Richard and I called her several times a day for the last four days without response. Finally, I got her on the phone and she informed me that Richard would have to come in for a face-to-face interview to get his benefits restored. “And if he doesn't come in on the date and time he was assigned, I will remove him again,” she warned me.

July 23: Richard took another day off from work and school to go to the interview. Finally, his benefits were restored–a month after his fair hearing. He then went to the health center and picked up his negative drug test results. His application for NYCHA is now complete.

July 28: Richard has been notified that he must work 20 hours a week under the city's Work Experience Program (WEP) in order to maintain his benefits. He is now attending school full-time and working 15 hours a week in the admissions office. Still, he must put in his workfare hours. I made some calls and found that if the admissions office can give him enough hours, he can work there to fulfill his WEP requirements. Further, the city is required by state law to give him an assignment that does not interfere with school. Richard had not been told about these options.

July 29: Richard is going to try and get a letter from the college stating that he can work in the admissions office for the required number of hours.

I also wrote a letter of reference on his behalf to NYCHA's “correspondence unit.” It is a long shot. There are some 340,000 families and individuals waiting for apartments. And Richard has been told informally he will have to enter the shelter system to benefit from the priority NYCHA gives the homeless. Still, Richard remains hopeful, attending school and eagerly awaiting word about an apartment.

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