We call it a social safety net because it’s supposed to be there to catch and support us when we’re most in need. But more often, our network of social programs feels more like a spider’s web – one that traps people in a sticky mess, holding them back from getting the help they deserve.
This web of services is filled with all manners of barriers and pitfalls, from incomprehensible application forms to endless verification requirements, jammed phone lines to limited office hours. Navigating the web can be a full-time job – one that often leaves people feeling ignored, dehumanized, and hopeless.
Why do this to people who are just trying to get the basic support they need to survive? What can we do to untangle the net?
To answer these questions, Solid Ground hosted a Social Justice Salon on Untangling the Safety Net in November, bringing together a diverse panel of people from the worlds of human services, homelessness, advocacy and – most importantly – the real-world experience of living in poverty and navigating the knotted-up safety net. Here’s what we learned.
Safety net barriers aren’t just difficult to overcome – they’re humiliating and harmful.
Kim McGillivray – a Solid Ground Community Advisory Committee member who brought her own experience with poverty to the conversation – had no trouble providing examples of barriers she faces on a daily basis.
Just that week, she told the audience, she had to go to an office of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS ) to prove – yet again – that she still lives on a low income and qualifies for the food stamps (also called SNAP benefits) that she relies on to survive. It’s just one example of the many times over the course of a year that different agencies demand she prove her poverty.
“I have to do that work – they don’t have to do that. They get to send letters – I don’t get to send letters, I have to show up,” Kim said. “Being poor is a hard job because the work is constant, and it’s always changing.”
Marcy Bowers, Executive Director of Statewide Poverty Action Network (Solid Ground’s Advocacy partner organization) Statewide Poverty Action Network, said she hears the same thing when her team goes around the state every other year talking to people in low-income communities about their needs.
“Being poor is one continuous public proctology exam.” ~Kim McGillivray
But, she added, “People say, ‘This is an incredibly valuable service, I just want to be treated better. Please don’t take this away. Please do not hear me saying that I’m treated badly and therefore I don’t want the service. I just want to be treated with dignity and respect while I am accessing a service that I am eligible for.’”
Marcy said people seeking support from programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or Housing and Essential Needs (HEN) often find themselves struggling to fill out indecipherable forms, provide documents they no longer have, or wait for hours on the phone, only to have the line go dead when the office closes at 5pm. Instead of working to build security and stability in their lives, they’re often forced to spend all their time telling their story over and over again, to one agency after another.
As Kim put it: “Being poor is one continuous public proctology exam.”
Kirk McClain is a Solid Ground Residential Case Manager, who’s previously served on the King County Regional Homelessness Authority Governing Committee and the Lived Experience Coalition. He said that besides being humiliating and emotionally draining, the knots in our safety net keep many people from trying to get help at all.
“People on the street, they need to see a pathway. They need to see a direction where they can go that leads to housing, that leads to a solution to their particular problem,” he said.
“A lot of the people that I spoke with while I was homeless, they just existed from day to day, from shelter to shelter, from one DSHS appointment to another. You could tell that they were just beat up by the system. It was like the system was not only ignoring them, but they felt attacked by the system. So, a lot of those folks decided to live off the grid,” Kirk said. “They decided to not participate in their own health and their own pathway back to housing.”
Bias is a barrier, and it’s built into the system.
Kim said she recognizes that as a white woman, she enjoys a great deal of privilege navigating the system. “I’m usually the same color as the person opposite me at the DSHS desk, and we’re usually the same gender, so I’m not a threat. And I speak fluent ‘Colonial,’ so we understand each other,” Kim said. “So, if they’re gonna want to help anybody that day, it’s very likely to be me. So, I benefit from that, even while I feel terrible about it and angry about it and sad.”
Other people, particularly from Black and Indigenous communities, are far more likely to face discrimination when they seek housing assistance and other safety net programs. According to Derrick Belgarde, Executive Director of the Chief Seattle Club, Native people represent only 1% of the general population in Seattle but about 35%¹ of people experiencing chronic homelessness, and yet are the least likely to receive support from non-Native agencies and nonprofits.
Derrick said that’s because American Indians and Alaskan Natives have learned not to trust the government over the last six centuries of genocide and marginalization, which includes the theft of Indigenous lands, the erasure of Indigenous culture through boarding schools, and the forced sterilization of Indigenous women as recently as the 1970s.
“We’ve been burned so many times, there’s a big lack of trust. It takes a real Indigenous approach to reach our community, to get them to accept help, to get them to trust,” he said.
Derrick speaks from personal experience. He first came to Chief Seattle Club as a member while experiencing homelessness.
“I remember one time I went to one of the main shelters downtown, stood in line, was about to get in there. I could hear the chaos, I knew that there’s no other Native faces in there, and I felt unsafe,” he said. “I actually turned and walked … back out on Third … and probably went and got a bottle and went under a bridge.”
“We’ve been burned so many times, there’s a big lack of trust. It takes a real Indigenous approach to reach our community, to get them to accept help, to get them to trust.” ~Derrick Belgarde
Studies² have also shown that Black people face significant discrimination when trying to get help to escape homelessness, making them less likely than white people to be placed in permanent supportive housing.
“Communities, particularly Native and Black communities, have not trusted these institutions and systems to listen to them and take heed to what they’ve been telling them,” said Erin Bryant-Thomas, Director of Equity and Justice at the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA).
Unknotting the net means rethinking who it serves.
If people seeking help are the customers of our safety net programs, why are they treated so badly? Kim had a simple, if devastating, answer.
“Because I’m not their customer,” she said. “I’m [seen as] a nuisance. I’m asking for something I don’t deserve. That’s what I am. So, if I have to wait and burn up a bunch of phone minutes and then get hung up on 10 minutes into the conversation so I have to start over – oh well. Will it teach me not to call? Maybe. It hasn’t so far. But it’s happened often enough that I wonder if that’s not the point. But oh no, we are not customers. We are leeches, for lack of a better word, and we are to be picked off and discarded.”
The systems that make people feel that way start with those with the power to decide who a program is intended to benefit and what hoops they’ll have to jump through, Marcy said.
“They come to those decisions with all of the baggage that’s in the air around us. So you end up with all of these places where people’s conscious or unconscious bias are seeping into the very fabric of our safety net.”
Systems are made up of people, which means they can be remade by people.
The good news is that systems aren’t built of stone – they’re built of people, and people have the power to change the systems they find themselves in.
“We are the ones that have been a part of knotting up the system, and we are the ones that are going to … need to unknot the system,” Erin said. “Because people are truly suffering with all of our policies, our procedures, our practices that are really getting in the way.”
One example: People who’ve experienced homelessness often have trouble finding a landlord who will rent to them – even when they have rental assistance money – so KCRHA recently launched a package of incentives to encourage landlords to lower their tenant screening requirements.
“It’s really incentivizing the landlords to open up their units to people who have been living outside and reduce those barriers. Not reduce, just get rid of them,” Erin said. “We don’t need you to look at a person’s background to justify whether they can be housed or not.”
“We don’t need you to look at a person’s background to justify whether they can be housed or not.” ~Erin Bryant-Thomas
For Black and Indigenous people, who have historically faced the most significant barriers when navigating the safety net, one way to meet them where they are is by providing culturally appropriate services. At Chief Seattle Club, which is premised entirely on providing culturally appropriate services to the city’s Indigenous community, Derrick said he’s had great success connecting people experiencing homelessness with services they might not otherwise seek out by partnering with Native staff from DSHS and having them offer services inside Chief Seattle Club.
“Our club, we look at it as a home for our people, and that’s how they view it too,” he said. “They felt comfortable, safe, in a place where they could open up and talk about their issues.”
It’s also become more common to hear conversations about barriers in the safety net at the state level, Marcy said. During the pandemic, lawmakers saw the positive impacts of the largely barrier-free stimulus checks sent out by the federal government. And earlier this year, the state completed a feasibility study looking at the possibility of guaranteeing a basic level of income in Washington state through unrestricted cash assistance.
“I think we learned a lesson, which is maybe it doesn’t have to be this hard. We could actually do this. We have mechanisms to do it and we should be exploring those,” Marcy said.
Systems operate better when they’re designed by those they’re meant to serve.
Why is this all happening now? According to the panelists, it’s because decision makers are starting to accept the reality that the best solutions to poverty come from the people who’ve lived it.
“Lawmakers, people in leadership positions, they’re starting to value lived experience,” Kirk said. “It’s like diversity in the ’90s. It was this new thing that changed everything, only this is way more powerful, because now you actually have people with lived experience in those boardrooms – in those rooms where decisions are being made about public policy – and that’s really where the rubber hits the road.”
And it’s not just lip service. Just this year, the Washington state legislature passed a law that will pay people with lived experience for their service on state task forces and work groups. The payments are meant to reduce barriers, like the cost of travel and childcare, that have kept many people with low incomes from participating in the processes that shape our government policies and programs. The guidelines for the program were themselves drafted with the input of people with lived experience.
“The answers do reside with those that are definitely in the experience, and that’s why we have our theory of change that says we must center people with these experiences, with these very real experiences of homelessness, but also experiences of racism, sexism, and all the other -isms that our communities are having to deal with,” Erin said. “We must center their voices and experiences in order for us to get this right.”