WELFARE BLUES


PNNscholar1 - Posted on 18 August 2010

Author: 
Thornton Kimes

 

WELFARE BLUES:  A.K.A. WHAT DO I WANT TO DO WITH MY LIFE?

 

 

Part 1

 

YESTERDAY

 

‘''For us old bleeding-heart liberals who were on the streets in the 60's, the idea that Lockheed, of the military-industrial complex, would be in charge of welfare is out of somebody's nightmare fantasy,'' said the director of the JOBS program in a Northeastern state.  Then he begged not to be identified, ''We may end up working with them,'' he said’

--From a 1996 New York Times article (“Giant Companies Entering Race To Run State Welfare Programs”)  by Nina Bernstein

 

I first navigated the deep, murky, living-body-choked waters of San Francisco’s Welfare Whirlpool in 1989, though there was more walking than swimming.  You go to 8th and Mission Streets to sign up for a Welfare General Assistance, or G.A., check.  I went to a check cashing place near 20th and Mission Streets to get that check because my last name begins with the letter K.  EVERYONE did Workfare, sweeping streets.  I met other street sweepers, and our boss, at 5th and Market Streets.  That is barely scratching the surface of that deep, living body-choked Welfare Whirlpool, 1989 or 2010.  

Does anyone remember when food stamps were paper?  I do, but the beginning of the EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) plastic card era was 1990, when Texas billionaire Ross Perot’s then-$12+ billion Electronic Data Systems company was fighting with various other small and large opponents (including Lockheed!) for the right to change the way poor folks get their crumbs from the Welfare system. 

Darwin Deason of Affiliated Computer Services, Inc (ACS), with the help of IBM and the State of Maryland, invented the EBT card and beat Perot out of a five-year contract to computerize L.A. County’s food stamp program.  ACS zig-zagged in and out of this swamp, getting out of the electronic welfare benefits biz until 1994, just before Bill Clinton pulled a fast one on the Republican Party and everyone on Welfare in Amerikkka.

ACS teamed up with Walter Patterson, director of the Arkansas Department of Human Services when Clinton was Governor.  The company didn’t think there was much demand for EBT cards, etc., but so many states were getting into the cost-cutting-of-welfare-budgets bandwagon it was clear there really was money to be made…

 

TODAY

 

Would you like to know about the confusion, craziness, waste of effort, money and time that is the San Francisco Welfare System?  The SF Coalition On Homelessness recently thanked supporters for helping dramatize the quote “Amazing Runaround”, unquote--the struggles homeless folks go through to get access to shelter beds.  Everyone in the Welfare system goes through an Amazing Runaround rat race every day.

When you check a box saying English is your only language you should never get an insert in Welfare Snail Mail asking if you need an interpreter.  Waste of paper and money?  Check!

A bigger waste of money and time?  Make people spend time solving problems already dealt with once, problems that almost got them kicked off Welfare.  The Computer, It Wrote Me A Letter, is the title of one of my poems.

How to waste even more money, paper, and time?  Mail lots of people notices telling them to meet with a man who knows less about Welfare and what it does and doesn't do than they do, pay him to tell us, the real experts, what is what and that we're going to get more mail identifying the real expert, our employment specialist case monster, for the next round of Welfare Games—the very employment specialist case monster I've already met during an earlier round of confusion, inside-out appointments for this and that...the employment specialist case monster who already knew she couldn't work with me yet because my Welfare therapist counselor has had the real power to make my case move fast or slow through the system for a while (or, at least, that was how it looked to me...).

I've met the employment specialist case monster more than once.  The situation could have been less crazy, but neither of us has the power to shrink this circus to less than 3 rings.  If reading this litany of looniness makes your head hurt, hey!  I lived it.  I'm still livin' la vida loca—The Crazy Life.

 

Part 2:  System? System? Do We Even HAVE A Steeenkeeeng System?

 

The other times I’ve been in the San Francisco Welfare system, I endured less craziness and got back on my feet—though I admit to settling for what I call “just any old job”.  That isn’t a good thing to do, especially if you don’t have the advantages people with money have—double especially if you grew up middle class (me) but didn’t get the Horatio Alger American Dream Hard Work-a-Mania thing really truly thumped into you so you believed it and lived it and made it work for you.

If that was what my parents were teaching me by example, I was watching a different channel.  Just any old marriageable guy/person, the nuclear family, divorce.  I mean, c’mon!  Oprah wants us to Live Our Best Life!  Have you noticed that the poor don’t get to indulge in all this stuff people with access and money do? 

We’re told, by the experts, “do what you love and the money will follow!”  Repeating the phrase “Do you want fries with that?” has never been my idea of doing what I love, especially since not much money’s gonna follow me around doing that.  I was asked, once, by an employment specialist my second time through Goodwill Industries, if I would consider getting a fast-food job so that I could have some money coming in while I looked for something better.

I said no.  I’d rather be homeless again, and start over from scratch--again.  Working full time in the fast food world, in the food world in general, is mostly a young person’s game to begin with, but combining an on-your-days-off job hunt with personal stuff like buying food, doing laundry, having a life?  Um, no, I want something better than that and I want the damned experts to help me get there!  Is that so much to ask for?  Apparently it is, but they didn’t ask me that question again.

And, anyway, I stumbled across POOR just after getting caught up in the system again, so the vision of “What Do I Want To Do With My Life?” (the title of one of Po Bronson’s non-fiction books, one of two I like a helluvalot) has changed “somewhat”.

So, this time through the system I only had to endure 5 weeks of PAES (Personal Assisted Employment Services) GEPS—I don’t know what that acronym stands for, except for several hours of boredom one day a week—instead of 12 weeks, but the choices offered at the end amount to the same thing always:  start looking for work immediately or choose the pathway to getting the system to pay your way through a relatively short school training program to pick up a new skillset and go after something better (you hope) than what you did before you needed to use the system again.

I tried St. Anthony’s programs and found myself in a sort-of honor system two hours one day a week geographic data entry training program unlike anything I’d ever tried to learn.  We were supposed to have a classroom to ourselves, with a door shut between us and relatively normal levels of noise, but somehow that room was always not-for-use, even though it was empty when we left.  We endured much noise, including one mass invasion of people going on a tour of the building, because of being in an open around too close to the front desk.

My original plan was to sign up for St. Anthony’s “A+ Certification” program (which turned out to be via City College) in computer hardware maintenance and repair.  I was talked into the other program until the City College thing happened in Spring 2009.  I never got a case monster, I mean manager.  I was so frustrated with the data entry thing I quit, and later found out no one had me listed as even interested in the City College thing.  So much for one of the 500# canaries of the local non-profit eco-system!

After doing PAES Workfare for the Coalition on Homelessness (I was startled to find them on the alternate workfare list.  The COH?  Doesn’t the city hate them?  Yes, but there they were…) I got into RAMS, INC.’s counseling/therapy services—I had chosen that option, with the intent to go after some advanced computer training (computer graphics like Photoshop, and web design or webmaster stuff) available through their HireAbility/iAbility program. 

San Francisco budget cuts killed the iAbility program the summer of 2009.  Though iAbility was resurrected, it only offers basic computer skills.  Been there, got that.  I got involved with HireAbility anyway that summer, partly out of boredom and wanting some extra dollars in my pocket.  Minimal dollars.  HireAbility trains people to be janitors, baristas, helps with more general job hunts, and pays piecework rates for work done on-site in a warehouse.

There was another option, going through the State of California’s “Department of Rehabilitation” (DOR) to get to City College or some other thing like, say a massage school or some other program.  Budget cuts made me wait for that, until DOR got someone to replace someone who was laid off or fired.  Are you feeling that headache déjà vu from Part 1? 

 

Part 3:  Road Trips

 

RECENTLY

 

Poormag had barely been in its new space when I started watching a PBS series that took young Americans and Australians on road trips to try to figure out what to do after college.  “Career-wise”.  One man said something pretty wise to the Aussies:  he had no clue what he wanted to do, to be, until after turning 40.  He zigged and zagged, made mistakes, had a lot of jobs he hated, but managed to figure out what he wanted to do after all that.

How many employment experts in America watching that had heart attacks?  The Welfare System People want us to take tests, stick us in boxes with ribbons tightly tied around our throats, mark us down as successfully employed (“Want fries with that…?”), fire and forget, rinse and repeat, the wheels of the bus go ‘round and ‘round—and other ways of saying the same thing.  I briefly thought that warehouse work might be my thing, but temp agencies and, ultimately, Goodwill Industries, cured me of that.  Who wants to be in one of the bellies of the beast, just another wad of chewed cud, endlessly swapped between the bellies spitting out all the stuff we are told we need?

Of course, that narrows down the choices, decisions, and what-not. 

 

Part 4:  Rat, Race--Just Another Rat in the Race Going Nowhere (a.k.a. Book Him Danno!)

 

NOW

 

Slowly, DOR got somebody new, and RAMS, INC., dumped a bunch of us folks on that person.  Later, I found out that my case monster, I mean manager, Christine Randolph, is new to the game of social work.  It took a while for her to get to me. I met with her two or three times face-to-face. 

She needed to find out if DOR could even take me on through this program, meaning “how screwed up is Thornton Kimes?”  Not screwed up enough to be on SSI (possibly debateable…), but was I screwed up enough to get on the waiting list?  The head shrinker thought so, and that interview happened faster than I expected. 

After that Christine asked me to do research on what I wanted to do, and then asked me to narrow my list to the top 2.  I did both, and heard from her that she had to talk to her boss about a Yes or a No.  I never heard back from her on either Yes/No.  Communication broke down, and became a frustrating game of Phone Tag, among other things.  

Part of the communications breakdown was some strangeness going on with my Poor People Phone Service through AT&T.  I was getting charged for someone else's phone calls, or someone hacked my identity.  I never did find out which.  I did cancel the service.

Christine wanted me to go back to HireAbility! 

I was really confused about this, especially because the person I was supposed to talk to at HireAbility sounded like she was expecting to become my new case manager and I would have to start all over from scratch with something I knew wasn’t for me.  I protested, and the communication breakdown turned into being thrown under a bus, being kicked out of DOR’s program. 

My RAMS, INC. counselor/therapist suggested (along with other people going to bat for me) getting the employment specialist—Tamara Yalgolnitser, based at the unemployment facility at Mission and Chavez Streets—to help.  Christine visits/visited that building every Wednesday, thus there was more than one good reason to go this route.  I got what everyone in Welfare calls a “Remedy”, usually a one-time appointment arranged to try to solve a problem.

I should have known better.  Many people in the Welfare system, who run into a problem (or problems) with what they are trying to do to get out of the system, get blamed for the snafu (officially, it’s never the case managers’ fault.  Never), they pay the price and have to do what the case managers tell them to do (or take the least nasty of, usually, two choices) to fix what’s broken.  I and my RAMS, INC counselor/therapist hoped for more, but what I got was Tamara playing by the Welfare systems’s rules,  which don’t allow for much, if any, flexibility. 

“By The Book” means having the attitude that everything was my fault.  By The Book meant that Tamara said that this chain of events meant that obviously I was not ready to work and that some kind of going-back-to-the-drawing-board action needed to be taken.  RAMS, INC. disagreed, especially since Tamara seemed to want them to start over with me.  My time with them is supposed to be ending, things are up in the air and I didn’t go to circus school to be a juggler.

Rat, race, just another rat in the race, sniffing the air, wondering if I can climb over the wall and go somewhere else.  Been here and there, done that.

Various people need to here from you if this “irks” you as much as it does me.  I’m not the only person getting hosed.  I’ve spoken with other people in the same boat, being asked to do things that don’t make sense—because if they do THOSE things…why do they even need DOR??????  The Gav.  Gavin Newsom.  San Francisco’s Mayor.  The Human Services Commission, the Board of Supervisors, the State of California’s Department of Rehabilitation--they need to hear from people. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

just love it!

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