June 7, 2013

Learning to SOAR

You may remember that I occasionally blog for my company, Policy Research Associates and so far I have written two posts in my series 'Confession of a PRA Newbie'.  My first post was about the PRA hiring process and the second post was about the experience of Co-Piloting Boston to Albany.  It has been a while since I blogged for PRA this week I remedied that situation.  My post will probably not be on the PRA blog for a couple of months so I wanted to share it over here.
First some background - for the past couple of months I had been working with a homeless gentleman to apply for SSI & SSDI.  (PRA does a lot of work with the Interfaith Partnership to End Homelessness - we cook monthly breakfasts and bi-monthly dinners, donate and work to promote their events as much as we can.)  Since I had never done a SOAR application before my supervisor thought it would be a good idea for me to take on a SOAR case and actually do the process that I am teaching.  If you are interested can read more about the SOAR process here, but overall it is a comprehensive way of applying for SSI & SSDI that all but ensures a higher success rate.  Just this week I wrapped up everything for my client's application and faxed off all the appropriate documents; now all we can do it cross our fingers and wait for the decisions.  Below I write about the experience of working with my client (names have been changed) and completing the SOAR process.

'Learning to SOAR'
I estimate that in the three months I consistently met with Anthony I spent well over $100 at McDonalds.  Yes, McDonalds and occasionally Wendy’s.  Anthony was a 23 years old homeless gentleman that I met through a local shelter that serves the homeless.  Anthony was in need of help completing his SSI/SSDI application and after our first meeting, the trips to McDonalds began.  You see, Anthony loved McDonald’s breakfasts and before every one of our meetings I would always stop and get him breakfast.  It became our ritual, we would sit in the conference room at Interfaith – he would eat his breakfast, I would drink my coffee and we would just talk.  We talked about everything from his childhood, how he was about to become an uncle, about whether or not he had had contact with his family Florida and what led to him becoming homeless in upstate New York.  The application seemed to become somewhat of an afterthought – sure we completed all the paperwork, visited the SSA office and set up doctor’s appointments but what really became important was our twice a weekly meetings, and those sausage egg McMuffins.
Unlike the other Senior Project Associates on the SOAR team I had never completed an actual SOAR application before coming to PRA.  I had previously worked with individuals experiencing homelessness and became well versed in work incentives and SSI/SSDI but SOAR was not a part of my professional experience until I joined the team.  There is much to be learned from the SOAR training but nothing compares to the hands on experience of working with an actual client.  Initially I was nervous about taking on such a large task while working to balance travel and the ongoing work with my states but I knew completing an application would make me a more informed member of the SOAR team.  So I dove in head first – getting to know my client, completing all the necessary forms, writing all the narratives and assessments but in the end it turned out to be so much more than that.
Anthony went through some tough times and wrestled with some challenging decisions during the time I was working with him but because I had gotten to know him through using the SOAR process I was able to serve as not only his case manager but also the one constant in his life.  In the end Anthony decided to return to his family in Florida; we had our last breakfast, I assisted him with getting his cell phone turned back on, dropped him off at the bus station and told him to be sure to call the office when he had arrived safely.  
Throughout it all it may have seemed like I was the one assisting Anthony but in reality he was the one teaching me.  He taught me not only about the SSI/SSDI process but also about the experience of being homeless – without even knowing it he taught me empathy, best practices, patience and that the easiest way isn’t always the best solution.  I had the privileged to be a part of Anthony’s story and I know that the SOAR process is only the first step along his road to recovery.

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