March 06, 2011

An Effort to Secure Benefits for a City’s Forgotten Residents

Jay Dunn

Lisa Parsons (left), a case worker, laughs with her client, Vernice Deller, a formerly homeless woman who now has disability benefits, housing, and other services thanks to Ms. Parsons.

As the head of Health & Disability Advocates, Barbara Otto understands exactly how difficult it can be to navigate the complex world of social-service benefits.

“People who are the most vulnerable end up falling through the cracks because they can’t figure out the very system that’s supposed to help them,” says Ms. Otto, who has led the Chicago-based policy and advocacy organization since 1994, two years after its founding.

That conundrum gave Ms. Otto and her staff an idea: What if Health & Disability Advocates figured out a way to get Chicago’s neediest citizens, including homeless and mentally ill residents, the benefits they were entitled to?

Four years ago, the group officially started its SSI Homeless Outreach Project. The concept, modeled on a similar program in Maryland, is disarmingly simple: A case worker seeks out clients around the city who are probably eligible for Social Security benefits but do not receive them.

Lisa Parsons, a lawyer who has worked for the SSI Outreach Project since it was started and is currently its only full-time staff member, spends her days traveling around the Windy City. A recent afternoon found her in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood at a drop-in homeless shelter, whose case managers had referred her to several potential clients.

“Wherever there are people who need our help, that’s where I go,” says Ms. Parsons. “I try to determine if the person has significant psychiatric or physical problems. If the answer is yes, I try to figure out how to get them benefits as soon as possible.”

The process allows Ms. Parsons to gain an intimate understanding of the lives of her clients and the particular problems that plague them. In one recent case, the outreach program successfully won back benefits for a homeless man it had been trying to help for more than a year.

“He was a severe alcoholic, delusional, eating out of trash cans,” notes Ms. Parsons. And somewhere along the line, she says, he had been declared dead by the Social Security Administration: “It could have been due to something as simple as returned mail.” Not only was the man eligible for benefits, but he was owed $100,000.

The outreach project, which has a total annual budget of $222,000, receives money from the City of Chicago as well as from the Field Foundation and Northern Trust Foundation.

In 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, the charity was able to bring in nearly $775,000 in federal benefits for the 238 people seeking help that year.

And while Ms. Parsons takes pride in the success of the outreach project in helping some of Chicago’s neediest residents get housing, medical care, and other support services, it’s a less tangible outcome that she most celebrates.

In another recent case, Ms. Parsons was able to secure benefits for a client in his 40s with a psychiatric disorder who had been on the streets for decades.

“He got the help he needed and he was able to move in with his sister,” says Ms. Parsons. “Sometimes that little intervention is what’s needed to get someone reconnected with their family, with their community.”