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SOAR's anecdotal successes may pave way for co-operation among state, federal programs

By Mike Hinshaw Howard Long is a testament to the possibilities of the SOAR program, so named because it's an acronym for SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access and Recovery, a program administered with states and various agencies by the Social Security Administration to help reduce homelessness and provide SSI and SSDI benefits for qualified applicants. The homeless community is particularly difficult to enroll, assess and reliably contact, hence the outreach. According to a Feb. 22 story at StarNewsOnline, "One year ago Howard Long, 50, was homeless, had no income, and was living outdoors. He had been to the emergency room at least twice and had been arrested for sleeping in public.

"Today Long rents an apartment, pays for groceries and utilities and has health insurance from Medicare.

"What changed Long's life is an innovative program called SOAR, which last year helped get 31 chronically homeless people in New Hanover County into housing."

Chronic homelessness

The story says it's all part of a 10-year effort mounted in concert with United Way to reduce "chronic homelessness" in the Cape Fear region of North Carolina.

According to the local program director, Dan Ferrell, the benefits accrue way beyond the individuals who get help:

" 'Communities like those in the Cape Fear region have become increasingly aware of the high costs of homelessness in terms of law enforcement, emergency room care and social services,' Ferrell said. 'SOAR is one of our major initiatives to reduce the costs of homelessness.'

"SOAR-acquired benefits bring taxes back to state and local communities."

Local authorities say benefits outweigh the costs

The story says the 31 recipients will split nearly $270,000 this year and indirectly quotes Ferrell as indicating the benefits back to the community will "significantly exceed" the costs.

A specific benefit cited is that the beneficiaries' lives improve enough to get out of the emergency-room cycle of using hospitals for health care. The thrust of the story is that addressing the essential cause of homelessness pays off better than the fragmented approach of an endless repetition of street sweeps, lockups, and a life of bouncing between temporary shelters and blowing in the wind.

Applying for benefits 'very complicated, difficult and somewhat adversarial'

But without a concerted effort involving inter-agency cooperation--from federal to local communities--local authorities have few choices besides traditional responses. "Applying for the benefits is 'very complicated, difficult and somewhat adversarial,' [Michael] Hosick said. 'Homeless people in particular can quickly get frustrated and give up.' ”

Hosick is the local executive director for Triangle/Coastal Disability Advocates.

The case that Jack built--over 30 years

More insight--and another success story--comes from a program in Florida, the Bridgeway Center: "SOAR (SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access and Recovery) is a highly effective process that works within the system to assist disabled individuals in obtaining Social Security benefits.  SOAR has proven to be a successful addition to the array of strategies in the prevention and alleviation of homelessness."

The example case that Bridgeway has on its site concerns the story of  Jack, "who had exhibited emotional and behavioral problems since childhood; anger, mood swings, inability to hold a job, and difficulties completing tasks of daily living.  Growing up, his mother would get so frustrated with him she threw him out of the home many times."

The cycle would be repeated many times, for decades.

On one of these occasions he was introduced to alcohol and realized that it made the voices in his head go away.  Jack did not like being on the street so he would beg his mother to let him come back home.  When Jack was found wandering the streets extremely drunk at age 16 he was taken to a hospital and admitted under a Baker Act.  Jack stayed in the hospital until he was 18, then he was released to his mother, stabilized on medication. This living arrangement lasted for around 6 months before again he was on the streets.  This pattern continued for six years, in and out of hospital, staying with his mother, becoming homeless and back to hospital, until his mother passed away.  Then Jack had no place to go; he truly was homeless.  He stopped taking his medication and began to use street drugs. At 25 he was arrested for possession of drugs, and then hospitalized again. When he was released and admitted to a group home, his Bridgeway Center Case Manager, Donna Morgan took him to apply for Social Security Insurance. He was denied.  Ms. Morgan attempted to assist him in the appeal process but by that time Jack had left the group home. Ms. Morgan then had difficulty maintaining contact with Jack to complete the process. The Social Security Office would not provide her with information on Jack's appointments schedule, doctor's visits or paperwork requirements since she was not Jack's representative. Jack was denied Social Security benefits three times in one year, without proper documentation, and with no one to stand up for him they would not consider his application.

For Jack? SOAR came through

Finally, Jack crossed paths with the system again, when Morgan ran across him, according to the Web site--and by that time, he was 30. However, this time "This time she used the SOAR strategies. Ms. Morgan became Jacks representative, completed the narrative and obtained reports from the many doctors Jack had seen over the years. After compiling all of the evidence as directed in the SOAR training, she submitted the documentation to the Social Security Office. Jack received full benefits within 3 months following application including benefits retroactive for the previous one and a half years." It takes a village, they say. In this case, the "village" is federal-state-city-local agency co-operation.