Every Wednesday, several government and private social workers comb the streets of Baltimore looking for homeless people who are mentally ill. Their goal is to help the homeless apply for federal disability benefits. But good intentions don't assure success.
Though the workers can start the paperwork, they often must refer people to a government doctor to finish the application. Even if the applicant keeps that appointment, the completed forms ultimately will have to clear the Social Security Administration's bureaucracy -- where some workers seem to see their job as finding ways to say no.
Advocates for the homeless voiced those complaints yesterday at a congressional hearing in Baltimore, held to look for reasons why more homeless people aren't getting benefits from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that 35 percent of the homeless may be eligible for the benefits nationally, though only 4 percent are receiving them. Applying the figures to Baltimore, where there are an estimated 2,000 homeless people on any given day, more than 600 may be eligible for SSI because of mental illness or another disability.
"We put a lot of resources into these programs, and then we find that a large number of the people we are trying to help aren't even applying," said U.S. Representative Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md.-3rd, who sponsored the hearing at the Christopher Place housing shelter in East Baltimore.
Mr. Cardin, a member of a House subcommittee on Social Security issues, said he hoped to use yesterday's testimony to persuade the panel to launch a broader inquiry.
The SSI program provides up to $386 a month to people who are elderly, blind or disabled and have little or no other income. Participation is low among all eligible groups, but the disabled homeless are seen as a special problem because their transience can make it difficult to process the benefits.
Mr. Cardin said he believed that Gwendolyn King, who was appointed head of the Social Security Administration by President Bush, was trying to change an agency that gained notoriety during the Reagan administration for forcing eligible recipients off the disability rolls. But representatives of government and private programs for the homeless testified that much more needs to be done.
April Seitz, a city Department of Social Services caseworker who is among those who look for the homeless each Wednesday, expressed frustration that people who may be disoriented are expected to get to a doctor's appointment days later. She said workers at housing shelters and other programs would be willing to drive applicants to appointments, but they don't have enough money or staff to do so.
Other witnesses noted that Social Security continues to turn down more than 60 percent of the applicants for SSI disability benefits. But of those who appeal, more than half succeed in getting the benefits.