New Program Offers Disability Guide to Help Navigate a Confusing System

 When misfortunes snowball, sometimes you need a guide to light the path to a better future.

Disability Network/Lakeshore received a one-year, renewable state grant in October 2013 to add a Disability Guide who is devoted to doing just that.

Carrie Benchich, who holds the new position, is already celebrating some successes, including expanding on-site services to Allegan on Tuesdays.

“This is work that Disability Network has been doing,” said Benchich, who previously served as the agency’s information and referral specialist. “But the grant gives us an opportunity to expand services to more people who can benefit from a guide.”

Benchich meets weekly or bi-monthly with Disability Network clients navigating the unknown waters of human services.

The goal is to help every client work toward financial self-sufficiency. Yet many require a safety net of social services for a while before independence becomes a possibility.

“Sam” is representative of the 15 clients that Disability Guide is helping so far.

A back injury several years ago left Sam with severe arthritis. Because of the pain, he’s been unable to hold a job. He also has a history of depression and substance abuse. He became homeless and was not eligible to stay at the Holland Rescue Mission because of strong medications he needs to cope with pain.

“He was terrified of dying on the streets without anyone knowing what he was going through,” said Chris Wistrom, independent living specialist, who assists Benchich with clients who are homeless.

Wistrom used an expedited process to help Sam apply online for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a Social Security program which pays monthly benefits to people with limited income and resources who are disabled, blind, or age 65 or older.

Applying for SSI or SSDI -- a companion program for workers who have paid into the Social Security system -- can be a daunting process, especially for people who don’t have a permanent address, easy access to a computer or computer skills, or a telephone, Benchich said.

Documentation of income and assets must be submitted with an online application. A telephone or in-person interview may also be required. It takes three to six months to get an initial decision on an application. Only a small percentage of applications are funded without going through an appeal process that’s based on a hearing scheduled about a year after the initial decision.

“People who apply will be waiting months to years for an answer,” Benchich said. “That’s a very difficult time for people, especially since they probably have medical conditions that need treatment and usually don’t have health insurance or enough income to buy coverage.”

With Wistrom’s help, Sam connected with an old friend who agreed to allow Sam to share his apartment for a reduced rent payment.

Through another DN/L program, Nursing Facility Transition, Sam got assistance to purchase furniture, household goods, clothing and groceries to make the apartment livable.

“It was just enough help to get him back on his feet and get him through the rough times until monthly SSI payments were approved,” Wistrom said.

Benchich works with another client who lost his job when he developed mental illness. Because he didn’t have health insurance, the problem was not properly treated.

As a Disability Guide, Benchich was able to arrange for the client to be seen at Community Mental Health for a few sessions, even though he did not have Medicaid. He also attended support groups, which supplemented the limited therapy. He availed himself of job training at Michigan Works! and was recently hired for a job he likes.

“After a few months, he felt like he could work again,” Benchich said. “He got hired and is doing really well.”

Without a Disability Guide, some clients would not be able to connect with the community resources that exist to help them, Benchich said.

In meetings with local representatives of the Department of Human Services, Community Mental Health and Michigan Works!, Benchich said the same set of deficiencies have been noted.

  • Clients often need help filling out online applications because of a lack of computer skills, or a problem reading or comprehending informational text.
  • Organization and retrieval of documents needed to determine eligibility for programs is a real challenge, especially for clients who are homeless. Many need help to follow through with requests for information.
  • People need mobile phones for easy, two-way communications with social services. The “Obama phones” – government-issued phones that give eligible people 250 free minutes per month have significantly improved communications.
  • Lack of access to health care continues to be a major obstacle for people with very little or no income, who don’t benefit from the Affordable Care Act, Benchich said. The “Healthy Michigan” Medicaid expansion program coming April 1 should turn that tide.

“Having a guide helping you pursue goals to remove barriers really can help a person working toward self-sufficiency,” Benchich said.  

Her new office in Allegan County is located in the office of Michigan Rehabilitative Services, and in close proximity to the local Department of Human Services and Community Mental Health.

Outreach to Allegan County is very important, Benchich said, because there is no public transportation between Allegan and Ottawa counties.

“I’m really excited about getting to know the people there,” Benchich said.

For more information, please contact DN/L at 616-396-5326 or e-mail info@dnlakeshore.org