Before she received a check for nearly $100,000 from the Social Security Administration last week, Wanda Witter was homeless. The 80-year-old former machinist from Corning, N.Y., is a divorcee and mother of four, but she spent her nights in a sleeping bag on a sidewalk near the corner of 13th and G streets NW in Washington, D.C., according to the Washington Post.
Three suitcases stacked on a handcart were bike-locked to patio chairs next to her every night. The suitcases contained all the documents she needed to prove that Social Security owed her money, a lot of money.
“They kept thinking I was crazy, telling me to get rid of the suitcases,” Witter told the Post. “I knew, when I committed to homelessness, I had to be very careful about what I did. ‘Don’t do anything stupid,’ I told myself. Because they’ll think I’m a mental case.”
The Post notes that Witter wasn’t too far off the mark about Social Security representatives thinking she is crazy. Witter spent more than 12 years arguing back and forth with employees at Social Security offices before she made any progress. Even then, she didn’t do it alone. If it weren’t for the help of D.C. social worker Julie Turner, Witter may very well still be homeless and frustrated by the bureaucratic mess the Social Security Administration has become of late.
“Dealing with the Social Security Administration is a very, very difficult system to manipulate. It’s not user friendly,” Turner, who’s worked for the Downtown Cluster of Congregations since 1987, told ABC News.
Turner added that the process is especially difficult for people who don’t have access to computers, such as the homeless, the differently abled, or the working poor.
“People who are homeless remain homeless, and people remain disabled if they’re disabled,” Turner said.
The Social Security Administration has tried to offset some of these cuts by offering more online services. However, this has failed to decrease the workload for Social Security staff, or the wait time for those in need of assistance.
“While [the Social Security Administration] has introduced many online services, including applying for retirement or disability benefits and for replacement Social Security cards, these cannot replace in-person service,” the CBPP reports. “Even as the number of online applications more than doubled from 2010 to 2015, the number of visits to field offices stayed fairly steady. In addition, many online applications, especially those for disability benefits, require follow-up work by staff.”
“The hearings backlog has a high human cost. Waiting a year and a half for a final decision, as a typical appellant does, causes financial and medical hardship. Some applicants lose their homes or must declare bankruptcy while awaiting a hearing. Their health often worsens; some even die.”
Turner has witnessed the worst of what delays in receiving Social Security benefits can lead to.
“Wanda’s story has been told. But there are a lot of other people in Wanda’s position,” Turner told ABC News. “When I first started this job, I actually had clients that died in shelters without ever receiving their benefits.”
Fortunately for Witter, there are advocates like Turner to help those in need navigate the Social Security system. But there is still a long way to go.
[Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images]