It’s the system, stupid.

That’s what I have to tell myself whenever I come across a story like the one I’m about to tell you. A dear old friend of mine recently got housing – well, it’s really just a room in one of the few remaining rooming houses around here. It’s part of “Housing First” and when I think of some of the asinine hoops one has to jump through in order to get housing in this city it’s surprising that he got this. With all his health problems and his age it’s a blessing regardless of how I personally feel about the Housing First program at times. 

For the first year he doesn’t have to pay rent, and after that it’s only 30 percent of his income, which isn’t a lot of money. Sounds great so far, right? Just wait. 

So my friend gets all moved in and he’s happy. He’s an honest person, he doesn’t play the system. So he makes all the right calls to all the right places. He won’t be a priority anymore on the housing lists he’s on. He told the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) which is in charge of SNAP benefits (food stamps) about his new digs, and he included the fact that he won’t be paying rent for one year. How did they respond? 

They cut his food stamps to such a low amount that he can barely afford lunch meat! It seems that when you’re homeless your food stamp benefits are plentiful, even though when you’re living on the streets you can’t cook anything, or even buy hot food. Before you ask, no, most shelters don’t allow you to bring in food. But then once you get housing, bam!  Your food stamps are gone. Now I know you’re gonna say, “He’s not paying rent for a year, can’t he afford food?”

If you’re asking me that question, you’re not paying attention. 

First of all, this doesn’t just happen to people who aren’t paying rent for a limited amount of time, it happens to other folks who get off the street and pay rent, including families. Why in the world would you punish people for succeeding? You’re homeless, you work your ass off, you push all the right buttons, you finally secure housing, and then get told, “We’re sorry, but now that you’re housed you have to starve.” 

It’s the same thing when you’re on disability. If you make a little money on the side, and I mean extra money for the holidays like ringing the bell for a charity, you can get cut off. This actually happened to a Spare Change News vendor. He got his benefits back after fighting tooth and nail for them. Like  all our vendors, they don’t make any real cash but even they can easily be cut off. 

Now, my friend could have lied by omission and said nothing to them at all, but he’s an honest person. Why punish him for that? This is why I have to keep telling myself, it’s the system stupid – it’s the only way I can explain it! Can we change the system? Yes, we can get rid of it.

As for my friend, he’ll be ok. He has friends, myself included, that will help him out. We also hooked him up with a couple of food pantries, but even that was a hassle. One told him that he had to go on a waiting list for six months before they could help him. How do you go on a waiting list for food? I called a few people and got him in. Crazy, huh? But that’s out stupid system.

James Shearer

James Shearer is a writer and co-founder of Spare Change News.

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