April 6, 2011

Rep Payee: Managing Money and Mental Illness

[Note: There's a job opening in the Rep Payee department! See Monday's post for more information. —ed]

We've recently been blogging about Bread for the City's Representative (“Rep”) Payee Program -- "the most important program you never knew we had."

This program is unique in that, through it, we are the only agency contracted by the Department of Mental Health to provide payee services to its 'consumers.'

This means that our Rep Payee clients are receiving treatment services at many different mental health agencies around DC -- and they reflect a broad spectrum of personal circumstances. While most of our clients are single adults, they may be homeless, institutionalized at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, living alone in a subsidized apartment in the community, or living in a supervised group home. Some have an extensive work history while others have never been able to work. Perhaps the most common thread among all of our clients is that they do not have anyone in their lives, such as a relative or friend, whom they can trust to manage their money. Because of this and their own struggles with chronic mental illness, and sometimes with substance abuse, our clients are vulnerable to being taken advantage of financially, may have very poor credit, and may have a history of housing instability or food insecurity.

The Rep Payee Program has many different facets, but its core service is the writing and disbursement of about 2,500 checks per month. Through this, we ensure that our clients’ rents and bills are being paid on time and that they have money in their pockets for food and transportation. Establishing this reliability and regularity is the first step to financial security and recovery.

As a case manager in the Rep Payee Program, I enroll new clients at our NW Center. This means that I meet with each client and his or her mental health case manager to explain how the program works and to answer questions about the ins and outs of having a representative payee.

Just the other day, I was enrolling a consumer who expressed her gratitude to me for us becoming her payee. She had been without funds for some time as Social Security awarded her benefits but required that she identify a payee before she could be paid. At the end of the meeting she said, “while I understand I need help managing my money now, Jo, is there any way in the future I will be able to be my own payee?”

I was happy to share with her the story of Donna, whom we told you about last month.

In that post, we explained how Donna has come to move on from our representative payee program, having come to the point where she can be paid directly. Donna has made a lot of progress, gaining skills with which she can manage her own budget and pay her own rent and bills.

I recently spoke with Donna on the phone about her experience in the Representative Payee Program and she told me about her previous attempt to manage her own money -- back in 2007. Donna did well on her own for a while, but she soon suffered a relapse of her mental illness. Suddenly, it became difficult -- if not impossible -- for Donna focus on her finances and bills. All of her energy needed to be focused on her mental health and recovery, but her bills and rent still needed to be paid. Donna knew that she needed help, so she asked to be re-enrolled in the Rep Payee Program here at Bread.

Years later, Donna explains that with the help of various supports and her continued participation in the Rep Payee Program, she learned valuable skills to cope day to day on her own. She also learned how to keep a monthly budget that guides her spending.

Donna’s success, however, is pretty exceptional. Many of our clients face even greater challenges than Donna - struggles with addiction, severe mental illness, even difficulty understanding the basic concept of money. In a given year, out of all 800 of our Rep Payee clients, only a small handful (ten or less) successfully move on to being paid directly. For everyone else, Rep Payee creates an environment of security and reliability -- ensuring that they can stay in their homes with their electricity and heat on or that homeless clients have dependable access to money for food and personal needs throughout the month.

I saw Donna last week, when she was coming by our offices for a Client Advisory Board meeting. She showed me a $10 bill -- her donation to Bread for the City for this month.

“It’s not as big as it usually is,” Donna explained to me, “This week I had to buy socks.” Needless to say, we are deeply honored to count Donna as a donor, regardless of the amount she can afford to give that month.

The Rep Payee Program is now hiring! See here for more information.


Krystal said...

That is truly an inspiring story. Not only does it inspire those who may be in a position similar to Donna's, but it also inspires those of us who are advocating and working for individuals in similar circumstances. It really is great to hear such a story and see how she is now showing her gratitude by offering a donation and paying it forward.

Ben said...

Great story, Jo. I, too, really appreciated the anecdote about Donna's $10 donation - let her story serve as a lesson for us all. "Gratitude is memory of the heart." Keep up the blogging, Jo - its a great way to showcase Bread for the City's work. I can't wait for my next trip to DC too see the new facility! HIGH FIVE!