After nearly abandoning her own battle for government assistance, Juanita Maestas – founder of the Human Dignity Support Project (HDSP) and a Statewide Poverty Action Network board member – took up the fight for others desperately striving to overcome the cycle of denial that runs unchecked through the government assistance application and receipt process.
Unsure of how to continue after being denied once again – this time for failing to fill out forms properly – Juanita just sat in the DSHS (Department of Social & Health Services) lobby and watched people plod out after their own appointments with caseworkers. Applicant after applicant shuffled by muttering similar accounts: “They’re going to deny me again,” or “I didn’t turn this in in time.”
Juanita saw a pattern that was invisible when looking only at her own experience. “I listened to everyone’s story and I thought, ‘They need help.’ That’s why I started the Human Dignity Support Project.”
A system of hurdles & barriers
Many assistance program acceptance practices are bound by strict rules and policies designed to prevent abuse and fraud. More than anything, however, this system makes it incredibly difficult for those needing help to receive the benefits they are entitled to. A cycle of denial is the usual outcome – a constant refusal of services based on mundane mistakes and misunderstandings that leave applicants and recipients feeling defeated and hopeless. In addition, they experience disrespectful interactions with staff, misinformation, long wait times, and inability to contact caseworkers in understaffed offices.
“When you’ve been denied, it’s frustrating and heartbreaking,” Juanita disclosed, “because these people are trying their best, but employees don’t take the time to help them. They don’t take them aside and say, ‘Hey, you forgot to get this,’ or ‘You didn’t sign that.’ They don’t explain anything to them. They just automatically deny them and force them to start the whole process over again.”
Witnessing as an antidote to gatekeeping
HDSP is a volunteer-operated project that works to overcome the barriers of the application and receipt process by providing motivation and moral encouragement, reducing isolation, and accompanying the applicants and recipients to appointments to act as witnesses.
At an initial meeting, HDSP volunteers explain the process and go over all the necessary documentation, making sure everything needed is accounted for and signed properly so they have no reason to be denied.
“Runners” act as witnesses at the appointments by recording information and interactions that can be used later in cases of disrespectful behavior or to refute baseless denials. If applicants or recipients are denied or lose benefits, HDSP volunteers provide guidance on overcoming such barriers even if that means looking into other options.
Advocates for self-advocacy
Support extends beyond cultivating an atmosphere of respect at appointments and ensuring the participants receive assistance. “We’re here for the participants to be sure they have someone to fall back on,” Juanita emphasized. “It’s important to act as a bridge between services. My participants know there are other sources of help out there. We show them how to take the initiative and to call around even though they’ve been told by DSHS that there’s no help for them.”
HDSP encourages confidence by nurturing potential and guiding participants towards self-reliance, independence and capability. Participants learn to take an active role in their well-being, and through this process, develop a sense of dignity and self-respect.
Volunteers urge participants to use their experience and knowledge about the system by acting as witnesses for future applicants. According to Juanita, participants are eager to “keep it going.” Moreover, participants are encouraged to share their stories with legislators to make changes to the system and give back to the community.