Social Security Income

Problems At Home

Working at Disability Network/Lakeshore means helping people with disabilities find the answers they need to remain independent in the community.  That’s kind of a mouthful, but basically it’s just saying we want to connect people to the resources they need to stay at home rather than go into a nursing care facility.

One of the programs I work in is called NFT: Nursing Facility Transition. 

In the NFT Program, we work to help residents who are already in a nursing facility but could live in the community except for various barriers that keep them from going home.  One of the main barriers we deal with is housing…specifically, low income housing.

Yes, you might say, but aren’t there already apartments available for people who have a low income? 

The answer is yes, there are…but not nearly enough, and, not nearly inexpensive enough.  You see, many people with disabilities are unable to work.  They, after a long, exhausting fight, manage to get disability income or supplemental security income, and that does help.  Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

If you manage to qualify for supplemental security income (SSI), then you’ll get approximately $740/month to live on.  That’s for everything too: housing, telephone, groceries, transportation, etc.  Low income is a necessity in this instance, but keep in mind that you may sit on a waiting list for months or years waiting for an apartment to become available.  And in the meantime, what do you do?

There are some places out there that are inexpensive enough.  It takes a while to find them, but even then, they may not have the features needed by someone with a disability.   

What we need are more inexpensive apartments that are accessible to people with disabilities, and that allow the people living in them to have enough money to purchase groceries and pay their other expenses. 

I’m not sure what the answer to the problem is going to be.  Maybe more small economy apartments.  Maybe more apartments that are Government subsidized.  Maybe there are other possibilities that I don’t know about. 

What do you think?  What’s the answer to the need for increased housing for people with disabilities?  There has to be an answer out there somewhere.

- Chris Wistrom,

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


The Whuffie Wall

At our Disability Network/Lakeshore office we have a “whuffie wall."  Whuffie is a term coined by Tara Hunt in her book, ”The Whuffie Factor.”   The term, as I understand it, represents how an organization and the work they do is perceived in a positive manner by the public.  Our whuffie wall is a place we can post reminders of the successful work we’ve done.


I just posted something on the whuffie wall: a person I’ve been working with was awarded Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) benefits.  While it may not sound like a big deal, to that person it is monumental!  It means having a home to live in rather than living on the street.

As I posted my marker, I was struck by how fortunate I am to work here.  My co-workers are awesome, and believe me no one is paying me to say that!   I thought about how much each person here is a part of that success. 

I’m Chris, and I do the in-depth interview of the people applying for assistance under the SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access, and Recovery (SOAR) program.  But Bree, our Information and Referral person did the initial interview.  Karon, the Administrative Assistant, stood at the copier seemingly forever and ran off copies of the medical records that had to be submitted.  Patti, a DN/L volunteer, answered the phones while Karon made copies.  Ronda, our Outreach Specialist, picked up the slack when I was frantically trying to complete the report I had to submit.  Lucia, Community Access Specialist, helped me stay focused when I got bogged down in my writing.  Carrie, our Disability Guide worker proof-read the final report and offered suggestions for how to tighten it up.  And Susan acted as my personal cheerleader whenever things got overwhelming!

Rick, Todd and Stacey provide support in a way that’s strange to most organizations: by supporting us when we fail.  No, that’s not something any of us wants, but when we do hit a wall they put the focus on what we can learn from the experience.  Then they pick us up, dust us off and send us on our way again. 

As I said, it’s a pretty awesome place to work, and the whuffie wall is a way of reminding us not only of our individual successes, but of the teamwork it takes to get there.

Guest Blogger: Chris Wistrom