Today, after 20 years of living in Berkeley, I went to the Mayor's office for the very first time. The results were a pleasant surprise.
Today started out as yet another frustration in my epic welfare struggle. Those of you who have been following my diaries know that it has taken 3 to 5 months just to get a FIRST meeting for the avenues I've been pursuing (Workforce Initiative, Department of Rehabilitation, General Assistance (Welfare)/SSI, basic medical care through HealthPAC). Here's a brief status update:
*Workforce Initiative: Process started in March. First meetings in August to review my resume. Main "service" has been to underscore why I'm unemployable: all of which I already knew and am desperately trying to overcome. Have been referred for Intensive job assistance (i.e., back on a wait list: no appointment yet). Have been referred for stress counseling (non-recoverable phone tag error). Have been given a huge pile of paperwork that I can fill out to get eventual reimbursement for bus tickets - which can only be used for job interviews. Ironically, I can't use them to get to appointments at the Workforce Initiative site.The gist of all this is I have had no means of supporting myself while I've waited months for these various programs to kick in, and I have no way to give an estimated time of "normalizing" my situation to the various people I have to mooch from or underpay. And since I don't have any transportation subsidy, there is a tacit assumption I will come up with the bus money for various appointments and stamp money to mail stuff in.
*Department of Rehab: Process started in May. Have met once with a counselor who is in the process of being laid off (for the second time). The next meeting will be with a different person and has not been scheduled yet. I need various medical appointments to rebuild my documentation to qualify for these services: no word on when those will happen.
*General Assistance (Welfare)/SSI: Process started in May. The only subsistence I get from this are food stamps and a subsidy ("General Assistance/Welfare") for less than half my rent. There is no cash for utility bills, hygiene products, transportation, etc. All the "welfare" goes to my landlord. Even this went missing for over two months during the summer, and I couldn't find out what happened to it because the case worker never returned my phone calls. I finally figured out the electronic phone tree for Social Services can eventually get to a person (though this is not revealed on the Social Services web site): and the problem was solved on the spot. Social Services was not interested in my suggestion of adding a "reach a person" customer service number to their web site. At the minute General Assistance is working as expected, paying for all my food and less than half my rent. No word about SSI, which I also applied for in May.
*HealthPAC: Process started in May. After four months of delay over a single missing (and completely unnecessary) medical record, I finally got my first appointment with a HealthPAC doctor this week. This was with an Urgent Care doctor who could not do much except re-start my medical records and order basic blood tests. There are no appointments with a regular doctor until October. I can only hope this doesn't further delay the process with the Department of Rehab or if I have to go before a judge to qualify for SSI.
The reality of the situation is if people remain unemployed too long, they are given the choice between homelessness and maintaining themselves by begging/criminal activity. There are no "bridge programs" to help people survive while they are waiting months for all these appointments. We're just supposed to understand that the various programs are suffering from budget cuts while we are getting kicked out on the street (where I won't be allowed to sit or lie down).
I've been through a lot, and I'm rather stoic about the probability of being forced to live in another time/space dimension. However, without any means of transportation, I'm having to walk long distances for various appointments, and with my mobility problems the suffering starts after one block and builds to an intolerable level after five. Today I was pushed a step too far.
One thing I always wonder about is whether I actually know about all the services that might help me. I've called the 211 number, engaged in web research, and asked for further referrals everywhere I've gone. Yet people are always surprising me with new resources. (For instance, I found out about the free clinic in San Francisco and the dental clinic in Berkeley via Daily Kos). Therefore, when I saw a flyer at Workforce Initiative for a "Review of Services You May be Eligible for", I signed up.
A week later I got a phone call from the relevant counselor and made an appointment for today. Honestly, I was dreading another trip to Workforce Initiative - it takes me over an hour to get there, and even with lots of resting at bus stops and low walls along the way, I'm in bone-crushing pain by the time I get there. Today I was almost crying by the time I hobbled in. At least there wasn't a line at the reception desk this time.
A few minutes later I was told my appointment had been cancelled. The "services" counselor had decided to take off for the day. When I explained how hard it was for me to get there, I was told the counselor had already left. I was asked to make another appointment for Thursday (which I suppose might just as easily be broken). I asked for a bus ticket so I could come back. A staff member looked into it and was told Workforce Initiative will not provide bus tickets. If they break an appointment with you, you just have to suffer through another trip or find the money for your own bus ticket.
These are the same people telling me I need to magically transcend my health problems to improve my chances of getting a job and that I should be more assertive with the doctor I won't have an appointment with until October. Sigh.
I was still in so much pain from the walk to the Workforce Initiative place that I couldn't move for another 20 minutes. I just sat there in misery, wondering whether objecting to the cancellation of the appointment was going to lose me "points" in the Workforce Initiative process.
Finally, I decided I was going to see the Mayor. If I had to stand on the lawn outside City Hall and set off fireworks, I was going to let someone know just how absurd my ongoing situation is.
My initial attempt to reach the Mayor failed. I went to the building where City Council Meetings are held. It was locked. I didn't know where the Mayor was. Luckily the Police Station was right next door: I went the reception window there and got a vague description of where the Mayor's office was located "across the park".
After 15 more minutes of hobbling, I managed to find the right building. I went to the concierge and tried to look as polite and neutral as possible while I asked if it was possible to just walk in and see the Mayor. The concierge sent me to the 5th floor.
On the 5th floor I encountered an administrative assistant. I tried to look as polite and neutral as possible as I asked if I could see the Mayor or the appropriate political representative (I was beginning to chicken out). I added that I wanted to complain about some stuff. This did not seem to throw the administrative assistant for a loop. She just verified I was a constituent in Berkeley and asked for my address so she could figure out who I should see.
A few minutes later an assistant to the Council Member for my district came to see me. I didn't get to see the Mayor, but I did get to see a Council Member. He listened patiently as I explained all the various ways I had been left in the lurch for months with no bridge programs to keep me on life support while I waited for the "services" to start. I also tried to bring up the need for a traditional "employment office" beyond the various "confidence building" programs that seem to have taken their place.
The assistant to the Council Member took notes, and both she and the Council Member tried to think of some suggestions to help me move forward. One important bit of information is that there is a "311" number I can call to find out about city-based social services (the 211 number was for the County and Federal services I guess). Perhaps the services I need (particularly transportation) are out there, but I just haven't been able to access that information. They were also going to arrange for someone from the County Board of Supervisors to get in touch with me just in case I was missing anything from the County level.
The Council Member seemed to especially appreciate the transportation issue and he indicated he was going to look into that. He also encouraged me to contact him and let him know whether my problems were getting addressed.
I was extremely surprised I could just walk in and talk to one of my political representatives without an appointment, and he actually looked into ways to help me. I was also glad that I went in person, instead of trying to call or email as I usually do, so whoever I talked to could see instantly what my problems were and why it's so hard for me to get work, to get around, or even take care of the most basic things in life these days. When someone looks at me, I am no longer an abstract problem - I become an obvious fact. And it should be equally obvious that if there are many out there like me, the current state of society as a whole is untenable. I joke about having to exist physically in another dimension, but in reality all the people without a means of supporting themselves will have to do something.
I have been increasingly cynical about politicians lately. During the Republican Convention I had to endure repeated lies about welfare recipients. In the months before that, I watched legislators ignore the plight of people like me and instead fritter away time on junk legislation, intended only to twist the law into a PR channel: Voter ID (to create the impression of widespread "voting fraud"), laws against using welfare for alcohol and tattoos (implying that welfare recipients get discretionary income to spend on these things), and laws adding the term "forcible" to rape (implying women lie about rape, and concepts of privacy and "family decisions" don't matter when male policymakers want to stuff their heads up women's vaginas). This abuse of the legal system for PR purpose has also been going on in the private sector, where large corporations can afford to bring fake legal actions just to get the press to tell a story the way they want. All in all, I've felt that the well-fund lie can bury the truth and pave over it with tarmac.
Meanwhile, rightwing pundits are declaring me bereft of character and a cancer on America's soul simply because I refuse to nobly starve myself to death. Or perhaps they think that refusing all handouts no matter how desperate you are is the fairy dust that will bring back Christ, who is the only one allowed to pass around loaves and fishes.
I was in this bleak frame of mind when I went to the Mayor's office today. I expected to be turned away. Instead I met with a human being who listened to me and might even be able to help with some of my problems.
*No Mayors or other politicians were harmed in the writing of this diary.
Unfortunately the 311 number is not what the Council Member thought it was. It's just an operator, not a referral service like 211. They actually referred me to 211! Off hand, the operator did give me a suggestion for help with utility bills though.
I'm also working through a "Reference Guide" of city phone numbers the Council Member gave me. The "Jobs Hotline" number is out of service. There is another Employment program which goes to voice mail: I'll have to scout that one out on foot. I don't see anything about transportation or other service. When I called the number that included a "Housing Assistance" program, I was told that they did not know of any Housing Assistance programs and referred me to 211 again.
There is a number for Disability Programs, but I think I already tried that - I was redirected to the Department of Rehab to get a referral from them. As mentioned above, I've just had one meeting with the Dept. of Rehab, and they are still gathering my medical records and evaluating what I'm eligible for.