When we met Thomas he was receiving services for his autism. But those services didn’t include housing or help paying shelter costs.
At that point, his therapist was paying his rent for a housing program that cost $50 per month. Although this was keeping Thomas off the street, he was without any income. He’d been resorting to panhandling, which often fails to get him enough money for toiletries and other basic needs.
Thomas used to receive Supplemental Security Income. This cash assistance program helps people with disabilities who have little or no income. But Thomas lost SSI after he was imprisoned. (A recipient loses these benefits after being incarcerated for more than two years and has to reapply.)
Upon release from incarceration Thomas had no support system. He ended up taking shelter under the 31st street bridge.
This is where Pennsylvania’s General Assistance (GA) program would have stepped in. It paid recipients a maximum of $205/month in most counties, helping people in crisis meet basic needs. This could mean rent, buying a winter coat, fleeing an abusive situation at home, or covering co-pays for medical treatment.
For someone like Thomas, who was once again in the process of qualifying for Social Security Disability, General Assistance typically functioned as a loan until SSI kicked in. At that point the federal government paid the state back for the GA payments they provided.
But despite having a documented disability, Thomas wasn’t able to benefit from General Assistance due to the arbitrary decisions of a collections agency. When he applied for GA, the state required he make a payment plan for his previous court and criminal fines in Allegheny and Westmoreland Counties, and get an official letter of compliance from both.
He completed the payment plan for Allegheny County, but Westmoreland County told him that his account had gone to a collections agency. That agency would allow him to set up a plan, but they would not verify his compliance with his fines until they were paid in full.
And then something far worse happened: state legislators, on a party line vote this summer, terminated General Assistance.
Being able to receive emergency relief would at least tide someone in these circumstances over. It would help him pay his own rent and cover his basic needs until he was receiving SSI again. Thomas is painfully aware that assistance programs are his lifeline. “When I don’t have assistance, I don’t have anything to fall back on at all.”
The state must remove barriers to support for those who can’t support themselves — particularly those who have fallen into dire straits. It is inhumane, and far more costly, to simply abandon them, as Pennsylvania has now done.
How You Can Help
Join us on Monday, November 25 to help move forward a bill to replace the terminated General Assistance program with an Emergency Relief Fund. It will help fill the gap for desperate Pennsylvanians!