After reading a recent article on my "Everyone Has a Name" project, I was contacted by Clark, who very generously allowed mt to share his story, under condition of anonymity. -CO
Clark became homeless after being diagnosed with mental illness in college. He was hospitalized several times, but the nature of his illness impaired his judgment, making it difficult for him to see the value in taking his medication consistently. Despite initial support from his father, Clark’s noncompliance with his medication left him isolated from both family and friends, unable to work, and struggling in school.
With no job and no place to stay, Clark found himself at the men’s shelter on the 1200 block of Ridge Avenue. Although he did not have a substance abuse issue, he was placed in the rehab portion of the facility, which allowed him a personal locker and his own room. Clark stayed there for three months, but was finally discharged from the shelter because he was hospitalized and did not inform the shelter staff of his whereabouts. He describes the Ridge Avenue shelter as “a rough environment” but one that was preferable to the streets. Fortunately for Clark, a family member in the social services system in Bucks County was able to convince the Director to let him stay at the Red Cross shelter in Levittown.
Consistent treatment and improved compliance with his medications allowed Clark to begin the long climb back from homelessness. But that road was not an easy one. Unfortunately, restrictions placed upon him by the public medical assistance he received prohibited him from returning to work. And he needed the assistance to afford his meds. So he remained at the Red Cross, stayed on his meds, and awaited the next move.
After seven months, Clark learned that a vacancy had opened in an independent living program in Bucks County. Clark took the opportunity, and moved into an apartment, which he shared with a disabled roommate for the next four and a half years.
Finances were a struggle. Clark had applied for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Medicare, but was initially denied. After two years of waiting for court and living on $200 per month in welfare cash assistance plus $200 in food stamps, he was awarded benefits, which helped pay his rent, healthcare, and other basic needs. Rent in the supportive living program was HUD subsidized, and amounted to 30% of Clark’s gross income. Clark emphasizes the fact that “SSDI is an insurance benefit that I contributed to with taxes paid in all my past jobs, not an entitlement like SSI. It's not a handout, it is an insurance benefit that workers like myself pay for with our taxes.” He also points out that ALL of the cash assistance payments he received were repaid in full to the state with a portion of his retroactive SSDI payment.
The assistance Clark received proved more than worthwhile—it allowed him to return to school and earn his bachelors degree. He was later accepted to a prestigious university for his post-grad work. Clark has lived independently while in grad school, and recently has moved in with a roommate to share expenses. He still receives SSDI, Medicare, and Medicaid to help pay his living expenses and healthcare, but his goal is to become self-sufficient. He’s confident he’ll reach the target when he graduates with a Masters degree in 2013.
Clark agreed to share his story, with a degree of anonymity, because he wants “to show that anyone can become homeless—even hardworking, educated, and intelligent people.” He notes that, even with neither a substance abuse problem nor a criminal history, one can become disabled and homeless. But there is a way out. Homelessness is not a dead end. Support, he emphasizes, is absolutely essential. Assistance from government (and private) agencies is a vital lifeline to those seeking to climb out of homelessness.