Ms. Rosen suffers from chronic mental illness that dramatically impacts her ability to function, resulting in lost employment, repeated episodes of homelessness and strained relationships with family, neighbors and staff at her supportive housing program. On July 13, Ms. Rosen came to the Homeless Advocacy Project’s offices unannounced, crying uncontrollably and rapidly decompensating. She had just learned that her General Assistance (GA) benefits of $205 per month — her only source of income — were being terminated for good. Indeed, on August 1, the state eliminated the GA program for all indigent individuals, like Ms. Rosen, who are too disabled to work.

Fortunately for Ms. Rosen, she was already being represented by HAP staff attorney Meg Retz in a claim for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) federal disability benefits in HAP’s highly successful SOAR Project (SSI/SSDI Outreach Access and Recovery). As a result of Retz’s advocacy and the fast-paced SOAR process, Ms. Rosen was approved for SSI benefits of $698 per month within just 33 days of Retz submitting her SSI application and only nine days after her GA benefits were terminated.

In Pennsylvania, the overwhelming majority of former GA recipients will not be as lucky as Ms. Rosen because they will not have access to HAP’s SOAR Project. Instead, they will likely wait a minimum of two years until approved for SSI benefits, typically after a stressful administrative hearing. And throughout that long wait, these men and women, too disabled to work, will try to survive on no income at all. It is not an overstatement to say that HAP, along with its sister public interest agencies and providers of homeless services, is in a state of panic at the elimination of Pennsylvania’s GA program. The termination of GA benefits leaves SOAR as the best and fastest option for disabled people to secure income and avoid homelessness.

When, in 2009, HAP first reported about its SOAR Project to The Legal, HAP had successfully secured SSI benefits for 70 disabled homeless individuals with an average 30 days of wait time from application. SOAR is an expedited application process for disabled homeless adults developed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and brought to Philadelphia by the city’s Office of Supportive Housing (the city agency that administers the homeless shelter system). Since HAP’s first SOAR application in December 2007, HAP has secured SSI/SSDI disability benefits for over 1,000 individuals in an average processing time of only 36 days from application submission. HAP’s SOAR Project has a 99.6 percent success rate.

The SOAR process typically includes the following activities:

• Interviewing the client and securing his or her signature on a number of forms and releases.

• Submitting to HAP’s SSA representative, via fax, a very brief SOAR consent form, which initiates the process and an SSA representation form.

• Requesting and reviewing medical records to assess the client’s disability.

• Completing the formal application paperwork (two SSA forms are submitted online and the actual SSI application, which is a paper form, is submitted by delivery to the SSA office at 15th Street and JFK Blvd., along with an SSA release form). The online and paper forms must be submitted within 60 days of having faxed the SOAR consent form to HAP’s SSA representative.

• Preparing a letter of support outlining the client’s disability, focusing on his or her functional limitations. In some instances, the client may have a case manager or other social worker who should submit a letter of support — either in addition to, or in lieu of, the volunteer’s letter.

• Advocating for the client with the disability claims adjudicator assigned to the case. This is generally done through email correspondence.

With the elimination of GA, HAP is exploring every opportunity to expand the reach of its SOAR Project. Specifically, HAP is working to expand its successful partnership with the Department of Human Services to ensure that fewer disabled youth are discharged from the dependency and delinquency systems without immediate access to income for housing and medical insurance for continuity of treatment. HAP is also exploring a partnership with the Philadelphia Prison System so that SSI and medical benefits are turned on when mentally-ill individuals are discharged from prison. HAP has reached out to local hospitals to offer SOAR for those chronically homeless individuals who cycle between inpatient hospitalizations and street homelessness due to serious psychiatric impairments and chronic medical conditions — exacerbated by life on the street at a time when Philadelphia’s homeless shelters are full.

As HAP develops stronger and additional partnerships, HAP’s law firm, law school and corporate legal pro bono partners have generously stepped forward to expand HAP’s capacity to represent disabled homeless individuals through SOAR. On August 21, HAP staff trained 13 attorneys and paralegals from Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, Duane Morris, Lincoln Financial Group, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, Dechert and Pep Boys. A second HAP SOAR training is scheduled for October 4.

Without the safety net of GA benefits, the need for the immediate expansion of HAP’s SOAR Project is undisputed. The human toll of Pennsylvania’s inability to meet the dire needs of its poorest citizens is unimaginable; yet, HAP remains optimistic that our community is up to the challenge — we have no other choice. For more information and to volunteer for HAP’s celebrated rapid SSI SOAR Project, contact HAP’s managing attorney Michele Levy at mlevy@philalegal.org. •

Michele Levy is the managing attorney at the Homeless Advocacy Project and has been with HAP since December 1999. She provides direct legal representation to homeless individuals and families and supervises the HAP legal staff as well as volunteer attorneys, legal assistants and law students.