March 29, 2010

Michelle says: Save Our Safety Net!

Last week I sat down with Bread for the City client, computer literacy peer educator, and Save Our Safety Net lead volunteer, Michelle Washington, to learn a little about her story.

Michelle taught at DC Public Schools for many years, but one day about 10 years ago she fell on the steps at school and was seriously injured. She needed surgery and extended recovery — and when the new school year rolled around, Michelle's principal fired her and refused to sign off on her workman's compensation. She ended up with no job, no workman's comp and no health insurance.

Here's some of what she shared with me:

When you can't work, you risk getting to a place where you feel like you're not worth anything. My elderly parents were taking care of me for years in which I had no income. I became very depressed - never even had the lights on because I couldn't afford the electric bill. My friends would come over and sit in the dark. I remember being down in Eastern Market and some guy was singing "Nobody Wants you When You're Down and Out." And I turned to him and I said "I only have one dollar but I'm going to give it to you because you're so right."

I'd believed in the system but the system was failing me -- and I was coming to be just like the people you see on the street. I needed counseling and I needed education. And I needed support. And that's when I found Bread for the City.

They have a holistic approach, a multi-disciplinary team that worked not only on your health, but on your mind and your soul. The doctors knew my name and always treated me with respect -- which is just what I needed at the time. They were also able to refer me to all kinds of different programs that I needed.

That's how eventually I obtained my Social Security Insurance. SSI denied me at first, as I was having trouble validating my injury. Bread for the City's case manager helped with the paperwork and arranged for me to see a medical specialist who confirmed my disability.

Eventually I came to the point where I wake up at 5:30am and dress like I have somewhere to go. And then Dr. Randi gave me a real reason: through the new computer literacy course, I'm able to share my computer skills with other Bread for the City clients. It's a new niche for me. And I'm so thankful for that, because when you go out to help somebody, you forget about the problems that you have yourself.

Think of someone not as strong as myself, without parents to turn to. People you see walking around, failed by the system, with no one to trust.

Today, the safety net that saved me is itself in need of saving. Case managers can't manage the flood of cases. It's so hard to get food stamps, housing waitlists are stalled, and shelters are full.

It's a trickle out effect: when people get desperate, relationships between individuals deteriorate. Community falls apart.

Now the city's budget deficit is even worse. But the Mayor is downplaying the situation, and the articles about what's happening to the city's services aren't front page any more, or even front page on the Metro section. You have to read that whole paper to find the little article that says "this is getting shut down."

So that's where we come in. Our mission at Save Our Safety Net is to convey this reality to people. We have to shake things up. We have to let the Mayor know that this is a crisis that demands better leadership. Stand with us and Save Our Safety Net!

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