O world, how apt the poor are to be proud.
William Shakespeare

Programs for children who are homeless or in otherwise straightened circumstances are, in my experience, more accessible and benevolent than those available to adults.  The children are not shamed or made to prove their worthiness.  Oftentimes word of mouth is enough to ‘enroll’ a child in a program.  It was through that method that my kids were given a back to school shopping trip to Target in September and invited to a Christmas party complete with a visit from Santa and gifts in the past month.  Once a week an advocate from the school district meets privately with the kids and asks how things are going for them- is there anything they need? School supplies are replenished without question and certificates for free haircuts appear in their folders. Free school lunches were available with the filing of a simple form and there is nothing that singles the kids out as a recipient when they go through the cafeteria line.   I am grateful that the children have these services available but even more grateful for the light touch with which they are administered. 

What a world of difference between those programs and the public ‘assistance’ programs available to adults.  Asking for help is hard enough when you’ve worked your entire life and have not only singlehandedly supported your family but have been able to lend a hand to others in need.  It’s made even more difficult when the programs set up to provide assistance treat the petitioner like a criminal, a liar, or an incompetent idiot.  You want food stamps or help with medical insurance?  Be prepared to have a mug shot and fingerprints taken and to provide reams of data that normally you would have held as personal and private information- bring your birth certificates, insurance policies (life, medical, burial), utility bills, mortgage statement, car registration, title of ownership (what on earth does that have to do with medi-Cal?), pay stubs, child support, stocks and bonds, bank and credit union statements, retirement plan statements, in short just about everything except the results of your last gynecological exam and if they could think of a reason I’d bet they’d demand that too.

Want transitional housing after losing your home?  Be prepared to have to sign up for mandatory savings program and life skills classes (classes in budgeting, parenting and housing searches), and for your family to be under the scrutiny of a ‘mentor’.  Oh, and leave your animals, wine and friends of the opposite gender at the door- they aren’t allowed in. 

And don’t expect to be met with sympathy and compassion.  Almost without exception I have found the workers at these programs to be rude and indifferent.  They sit on the other side of the desk avoiding eye contact and recite the program’s requirements in a bored monotone ending with an impatient sigh.  They may well have said the same thing over and over again in the past months but they can be assured that it’s the first time we’ve heard it, so it would be nice if they didn’t act like we were stupid when we have a question or two.  The worker’s attitudes are mirrored in the letters we receive from the programs.  Forget sitting down with someone who asks in a caring way- is there anything you need?  Instead you will receive poorly worded official correspondence that uses demanding and vaguely threatening language: “If you don’t return the requested items by such and such date you will be removed from the program.”  Would it hurt to write and say something along the lines of ‘We noticed that you haven’t returned the requested items and we really don’t want you to lose the benefits for which you are eligible so we are sending this reminder’?

I am sure that there are and have been many people in the system who need the handholding, the life skills classes, the mentor who makes sure they don’t relapse back to the bad habits that sent them out onto the streets.  But times have changed.  Thousands of newly unemployed people are competent, highly educated adults who have worked in professional positions for decades.  We aren’t drug users, victims of domestic abuse, high school dropouts.  Show us some respect.  For that matter how about treating all of the program recipients the way you would like to be treated in similar circumstances?

Just like in the airport security there need to be two or more lines- one for people who need more help and time to get through the process and one for frequent fliers who travel light and know where they are going!

Generosity is giving more than you can, and pride is taking less than you need.
Kahlil Gibran

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