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Connecting homeless to benefits takes patience, a listening ear, advocates say

SALT LAKE CITY — Is there another Wanda Witter on the streets of Salt Lake City?

Witter, 80, spent years living on the streets in Washington, D.C., closely guarding suitcases that held documents that proved the Social Security Administration owed her nearly $100,000, according to a story published recently by the Washington Post.

With the help of a social worker and a lawyer, the woman finally received the benefits she had earned.

Local advocates for people experiencing homelessness say they're unaware of a similar case in Utah, but they're quite familiar with the challenges homeless people encounter when they interact with any sort of bureaucracy.

"Part of our job is we try to break down the barriers for clients to be able to get into housing. Part of it is trying to get IDs, birth certificates and Social Security cards. So that's a daily battle with clients," said Sandra Hollins, homeless outreach program manager for Volunteers of America-Utah.

Beyond documentation, most homeless people do not have bank accounts, where programs can send electronic remittances or mailing addresses where checks can be sent. Often, those issues can be overcome by mailing checks to nonprofit agencies that assist people experiencing homelessness, Hollins said.

Sometimes, the biggest impediment to resolving issues with government agencies is making sure people who need help are heard.

"That's why it's so important to just listen to our clients. I think our clients are so used to not being heard. Part of what we do is we listen to them. Just because they're homeless doesn't mean they don't have an opinion or a goal or a vision for their life. They're aware of what's going on," Hollins said.

As Witter's story illustrates, obtaining the benefits she was entitled to meant the difference between sleeping on the streets and renting a modest apartment where she is safe, can cook for herself, attend to personal hygiene and rest.

But her story is also instructive about the difficulty many people encounter when they interact with agencies like the Social Security Administration. Some people hire attorneys to negotiate the bureaucracy for them, but that's rarely an option for people who are homeless.

"It's kind of a nightmare if you're not used working a system," said Dennis Kelsch, homeless services director for Catholic Community Services of Utah.

Client advocate Gina Lopez helps people assemble necessary IDs and fill out paperwork.

"It can become just a circle. You need ID to get a birth certificate. You need a birth certificate to get an ID. Of course they need all these things for jobs and housing and all kinds of stuff," Kelsch said.

People who are homeless often fall prey to thieves so people who invest the time and money to obtain their personal documents frequently lose them. Catholic Community Services securely stores clients' documents until they need them, but not all clients use the service, he said.

"Going through the maze of getting all this stuff, it can be kind of frustrating for people. If you have to send away, there can be a cost involved. The Road Home does offer a program where they do help people get IDs. They provide money for a state ID," Kelsch said.

On occasion, Catholic Community Services advocates refer clients to an attorney who operates a pro bono legal clinic on-site once a week for further assistance.

Sometimes, as Witter did, they attempt to fill out forms and send in documents on their own.

"When outreach workers step in, they sometimes discover that the process is incomplete, documents are missing or forms have been filled out incorrectly," Hollins said.

"(Clients) become frustrated when things stop moving forward," she said.

Kelsch said a growing number of senior women are seeking help from Catholic Community Services, many of whom come from a generation of women who did not work outside the home and don't have their own retirement savings or pensions. Most have outlived their husbands and are unaware they may be eligible for benefits as a surviving spouses.

"That age group increasing as far as the homeless picture is concerned," he said. "They're just out of the loop how you access Social Security, or where (to) go to get a birth certificate."

Many services are available online at, but people need internet access to use those services and some need help using it. To obtain some services, people need to visit government offices in person, which means paying for a ride on a bus or finding some other means to travel there.

Volunteers of America spokeswoman DeAnn Zebelean said the nonprofit organization tries to help people who need help negotiating all sort of bureaucracy, whether it's finding a health care providers, finding housing or applying for public assistance or Social Security benefits.

"We definitely do see people that we're able to help them through that then they do qualify for benefits. Not that we have someone that's going to get $100,000, but we celebrate just as equally getting those monthly checks coming in because they can usually afford to get a place of their own," Zebelean said.

Added Hollins: "Then their quality of life totally changes."