Solid Ground’s Benefits Legal Assistance (BLA) attorneys work with Washington state residents struggling to access vital public benefits. One of these is the Housing and Essential Needs (HEN) program, a type of Washington state aid available to people with very low incomes who are “incapacitated” and unable to work for at least 90 days.
This flexible non-cash assistance program can help pay for housing costs and other “essential need” items. For some, HEN means the difference between staying on the streets and having a roof over their head. Others might use HEN for cleaning supplies, bus passes, and personal health and hygiene items.
While HEN can make a big difference in clients’ lives, it has a 12-month time limit. When the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) approves a HEN referral, the recipient becomes eligible to receive HEN through a provider for 12 months. However, because a short-term disability can last for more than 12 months, DSHS sometimes cuts off HEN benefits at the end of a year if a person has been unable to work for 12 months.
In these cases, a person might be able to receive Aged, Blind and Disabled (ABD), a cash benefit of $197 a month for people with conditions expected to last at least 12 months. Solid Ground’s BLA attorneys use a variety of strategies to keep clients on HEN, whether their HEN is being terminated or they are being moved to ABD.
Attorneys Sara Robbins and Katie Scott say they sometimes discover that a client on ABD is actually eligible for HEN. “That’s where I think as attorneys we really come in handy,” says Katie. “These are the regulations, the department made the regulations, and if we can use them to benefit a particular client, we’ll do that: hold the department accountable to enforcing their regulations.”
For many clients, being able to stay on HEN makes the difference between being able to afford housing and becoming homeless. For others, it is a ticket out of homelessness.
“Some of the clients are homeless when they get the HEN benefit, so they actually use it to get into housing,” Sara says. “I have a client right now who had been on a waiting list for a subsidized unit for two years. She came up on the waiting list and she also got approved for HEN around the same time – so it helped her move into the unit. Unfortunately, the subsidized unit is still $800 a month. So if she loses HEN, there’s just no way that she’ll be able to pay for this apartment she waited two years to get into.”
Clients really appreciate all the work that BLA does, from listening to their stories to demystifying the law. “People feel like we are able to explain the law in a way that makes sense to them, which can be quite difficult. And generally, people have appreciated the time and effort we have put into researching their case and really treating people as individuals,” says Katie.
When there is a success, clients feel immense relief about getting to keep their housing. According to Katie, “If someone is stressed about losing their housing or on the brink of homelessness, it’s like you can’t think about anything else. The biggest thing I feel from clients is relief. It feels like some breathing room to focus on other things.”
While BLA has been able to help many keep their HEN, unfortunately, not all cases have a legal solution. This is why the team makes clear communication and accountability to the client a priority. “I’m going to give my honest opinion about their case. If I think we have a slam-dunk case, I might tell them that, but let them know that you still might never know what a judge is going to decide. If we have a case that is really tenuous, I try to be really honest about that and help clients sort of plan ahead,” says Katie.
Sara adds, “If clients have questions and want more information, we’re available to do that. We keep all of our notes. Clients are entitled to a copy of their file if they want it and any of the documents that we rely on, and they’re entitled to an explanation, however detailed that needs to be.”
It is no wonder that the Benefits Legal Assistance Team won Solid Ground’s 2016 Accountability Award. Not only are they accountable to clients, but they also hold the public benefits systems accountable by fighting for systemic change. By maintaining regular communication with DSHS to work together on these issues, the team strives to work toward policy changes to enable more people to qualify for HEN in the future.