Don’t forget the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) when you file this year!

Image by hywards

It’s Federal income tax filing season! Each year the Department of Commerce partners with a number of other agencies and organizations to promote the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The goal is to reach out to families and individuals with low-to-moderate incomes, educate everyone about the credit, and motivate all who are eligible to file for free to claim their refund. It is important that those who worked in 2014 do not miss out on thousands of dollars they’ve earned because they fail to claim the EITC.

Background Information:

The EITC can reduce taxes owed and result in a huge refund (as much as $6,143!). This means working families and individuals can keep more of what they earn and life will be a little easier. However, in order to get this benefit, you must file on time and claim the credit. The Internal Revenue Service will begin accepting electronic tax returns beginning on January 31, 2015.

File for Free:

In addition, many families and individuals are able to have their federal tax return prepared and e-filed for FREE. To help you find a nearby location, just call 2-1-1 or search “free tax preparation” at the IRS website.

Get the Facts:

You are welcome to view posters, flyers, multi-language documents, and bookmarks from the Department of Commerce’s online EITC marketing toolkit to get more information about the EITC.

Last year, 448,000 Washington individuals and families received $960 million in EITC refunds. However, the program still goes unused by about 25% of Washington state’s qualified workers who don’t realize they are qualified. Don’t forget the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) when you file this year, and please help spread the information to everyone eligible!

Affordable Care Act (ACA) now in open enrollment!

King County "Coverage is Here" logoWashington state is currently in the open enrollment period to renew or sign up for low-cost private insurance. Enrollment for qualified health plans began November 15, 2014 and will end on February 15, 2015, so time is of the essence to sign up! There are very informative resources available about affordable health care on the Washington healthplanfinder website as well as social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

But remember, for those who qualify for Washington Apple Health (formerly called Medicaid), enrollment is open all year – so people can sign up any time! If you are not sure of your eligibility, this very helpful chart from Health Care Authority includes the income limits for the various Apple Health programs.

Other resources that might be helpful in comparing, purchasing and enrolling for health insurance include Washington LawHelp self-help materials, which outline some basic legal information regarding the current state policies in a clear and organized format. Also, the Washington Health Benefit Exchange website offers individuals and families materials to find and pay for quality health insurance. In addition, The Northwest Health Law Advocates recently created a very informative self-help publication for anyone in need of further details about the various insurance options for health care in Washington.

If you have any additional questions, please do not hesitate to contact Solid Ground’s Family Assistance  program’s Intake Line: 206.694.6742 or WAFINDER: 855.923.4633. Here’s to a healthy (and fully-insured) 2015!

Special enrollment & the Affordable Care Act

For a large segment of the US general public, open enrollment for health care coverage through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2014 was October 1, 2013 through March 31, 2014. Most who missed that window will have to wait until the next open enrollment period for coverage in 2015, which is November 15, 2014 through February 15, 2015. However, exceptions for certain life events qualify some people for special enrollment, which is year round. Exceptions include those who qualify for or are renewing Washington Apple Health (formerly known as Medicaid in Washington state), marriage, divorce, birth or adoption of a child, foster care, or death of a dependent. There are many other qualifying factors, but all of the explanatory jargon can be confusing at times.Health Care 1985

Thankfully, our Family Assistance Program has been hard at work providing trainings and legal advice on the ACA. The purpose of these trainings is to assist people with education on and enrollment in the newly available medical insurance through the Health Benefit Exchange and Apple Health. For example, one of the major changes from the expansion of the Medicaid program affects those making up to 138% of the Federal Poverty Level. Specifically, if a single household earns under $1,274 per month (or $15,290 per year), then they can access Apple Health and apply for it at any time. Folks who make more than that are potentially eligible to purchase a Qualified Health Plan through the Health Benefit Exchange during the next open enrollment.

Solid Ground holds an ongoing commitment to educate and enroll the uninsured in free or affordable health care. From October 1, 2013 to May 29, 2014, 178,659 residents were enrolled for health care coverage in King County. Amazingly, 40,021 of them were previously eligible for Medicaid but not enrolled, 48,344 are receiving coverage through a Qualified Health Plan, and 90,294 newly eligible people signed up for Apple Health. Our President and CEO, Gordon McHenry Jr., couldn’t be more thrilled. “These impressive results were the work of a great partnership involving King County Public Health, our medical providers and many nonprofits, including Solid Ground,” he said in a letter to Solid Ground staff. “Equitable access to quality, free or affordable health care is essential to a community that is healthy and thriving.”

Reminder: Open enrollment for Apple Health is year-round, and applications can be accessed through Washington Healthplanfinder. If you have questions regarding special enrollment or anything else regarding coverage under the ACA, please contact the Family Assistance Program at 206.694.6742.

Late mortgage payments & your credit

Foreclosure signHow does being late on your mortgage affect your credit? The short answer: It depends.

When you hear about credit scores, what people are most often referring to is a FICO® score. Your FICO score is a way to summarize your credit risk at any given moment in time. The score takes into account your payment history, outstanding debt and length of credit history, among other things. Any potential lender will look at this score to determine how much of a risk you are and what interest rate you will be charged as a result of your risk level.

So, what happens to your credit score when you fall behind on your mortgage payment? That depends where you started. People with higher credit scores actually take more of a hit when they fall behind on their mortgage and when they go through foreclosure. For example, according to FICO:

Homeowner A

  • Starting credit score: 680
  • 90 days late: 610 (70 point drop)
  • Foreclosure sale: 585 (95 point drop)

Homeowner B

  • Starting credit score: 780
  • 90 days late: 660 (120 point drop)
  • Foreclosure sale: 630 (150 point drop)

While Homeowner B still comes out with a higher score after foreclosure, their drop in overall points is significantly greater than that of Homeowner A. This is likely because Homeowner A has some non-mortgage delinquencies or credit issues that have already lowered their score, so the effect of the mortgage delinquency isn’t as great. It also takes longer for a homeowner with a high credit score to recover their previous credit status after a delinquency or foreclosure.

When dealing with a mortgage delinquency, the options that allow you to keep your home typically have the least impact on your credit. Most loan modifications, including those offered through the federal government like Making Home Affordable, will not affect your credit score. Any negative credit impact comes from late payments that happened prior to the modification. A forbearance agreement or repayment plan can additionally tag on a negative impact to your credit score if your lender reports you as paying under a partial payment agreement.

Non-retention options such as short sale and foreclosure sale will have the biggest hit on your credit because of the level of delinquency and failure to pay on the loan as agreed. A common assumption is that a short sale is better for your credit than foreclosure. This may not actually be true.

Both will impact homeowners’ credit scores in a similar way because they typically involve significant delinquencies. Beyond that, it is difficult to say for certain how a short sale will impact your credit because there is no specific reporting code for short sales. This means that some of how your credit is affected is up to your lender’s discretion.

If you are behind on your mortgage and want to know more about your options, please call 206.694.6766 or email housingcounseling@solid-ground.org. There is no charge for Solid Ground services.

For more general information on this and related topics, attend our next free Mortgage Information & Enrollment Workshop on Wednesday, May 28th from 6-8pm at Solid Ground (1501 N 45th St, Seattle, WA 98103).

ConnectUp: Using communication technologies to link people with essential services

ConnectUp 2013Solid Ground’s ConnectUp program is a communication hub that provides a wealth of access to information for people living on low incomes in King County. Formerly known as Community Voice Mail, the program changed its name in 2012 to better represent its broadening services and the ever-changing landscape of telecommunications.

Originally developed to provide access to personal voice mail for those without phones seeking employment, ConnectUp has expanded to include broadcast messaging, education and outreach, and referrals to discount telecommunication providers.

For people experiencing homelessness or living on low incomes, access to information and the ability to contact resources are vital. As face-to-face interactions and paper submissions are being replaced with technology, it is almost impossible to seek assistance without this access.

ConnectUp Program Supervisor, Lambert Rochfort, described telecommunications as a bridge between people and services. “It’s very difficult to get a job, housing or access services without a phone and the internet. And it’s only going to get worse as more and more companies will only let you apply for jobs online. If you can’t apply online, you have to call them. Even if someone needs services like housing or health care, they still need a phone to call 2-1-1.”

Spreading the word

The program takes advantage of all the ways telecommunications can disseminate information. The Resource Wire – ConnectUp’s blog and broadcast messaging system – spreads the word about job fairs, employment opportunities, workshops and classes, job training, community resources and social services. Through email, Facebook, Twitter, blogging and voice mail, ConnectUp can broadcast a wide range of information.

It was through resource broadcasting that many people found out about discount phone programs. “Over time people were more interested in getting free cell phones through us than they were in getting voice mail,” Lambert explained. “And we, by default, became the place to go and the people to ask about these cell phone programs. Nobody was really helping people access them. We shifted from being a provider of voice mail to a provider of information.”

A hub for information

ConnectUp became the coordinated entry point through 2-1-1 for people needing free or discounted cell phones, internet, voice mail, home phonessmart phones and computers. Staff explain the programs available, help them figure out which programs they are eligible for, and assist them with the application process.

“I’m not aware of any other agency in the country that’s doing quite what we’re doing in helping people access the phone and internet discount programs,” Lambert expressed. “Seems like in most places, people are left on their own. 2-1-1 can refer them, but the operators are not up to date on the programs and who is eligible. We’re doing something unique as far as the information and referral, but also the education and outreach.”

Hooking people up to independence

In the coming year, ConnectUp will seek to integrate telecommunications into Solid Ground’s Housing services. Their vision is that, as clients are set up in housing, they will be referred to ConnectUp to apply for low-cost phone and internet services, and will sign up for the Resource Wire. Clients will use the connectivity to turn on utilities, seek and maintain employment, receive information on community resources and events, integrate financial empowerment through financial literacy messages, and stay in touch with social services.

By giving clients the freedom to seek out resources themselves, access to communication technology reduces isolation and affords the ability to take some control over their circumstances. Connectivity through technology supports independence and confidence and fosters self-supporting behavior that leads to quicker stabilization.

Access to communication technology is imperative because it is a link to loved ones, support, opportunity, education, employment and a higher quality life. According to Lambert, “Telecommunications should be considered a basic human right that everyone can have access to, regardless of how much money they have. ConnectUp is trying to make that possible by removing the barriers that exist for people living on low incomes to accessing communications technology.”

WA Exchange reports strong Obamacare enrollment; Medicaid enrollment stays open

1985_Health CareGreat news on the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) front!

The big enrollment numbers are in and they are looking good:

  • 146,500 people signed up for private insurance on the WA exchange, including 8,000 on March 31, the last day to sign up.
  • 268,164 newly eligible people signed up for Medicaid (called Washington Apple Health in our state) – that’s TWICE the state’s goal!
  • All told, approximately 958,000 people in our state signed up for or renewed their health insurance through wahealthplanfinder.org over the past six months.
  • Numbers are coming soon that outline breakdown by age, as well as new vs. renew – stay tuned.

A few important reminders:

  • Medicaid has open enrollment all the time – it is not impacted by Monday’s deadline. Many in our community are Medicaid-eligible (up to 138% of federal poverty level). If folks are unsure whether or not they qualify, they can call our ACA Hotline at 206.694.6714).
  • People can sign up for private insurance at any time during the year IF they have had a major life event, such as a marriage, divorce, job loss, birth or adoption of a child, or move to/from another state.
  • Wahealthplanfinder.org is the online portal to sign up for both Medicaid and private insurance. People can still use the website to sign up for insurance in either of the above situations.
  • If people tried to buy private insurance on Monday, but got cut off by computer issues, or if they are dealing with a natural disaster, domestic violence, or a few other issues, they can request an extension by calling 1.855.923.4633 or emailing customersupport@wahbexchange.org.
  • Have additional questions about any of my reminders? Check out the FAQ from the WA Health Exchange Board.

This has been a tremendous effort – from all the way back in 2009/2010 when we marched together in the streets to pass the Affordable Health Act, through all the political wrangling, and into implementation and sign up. Congratulations to everyone who advocated for passage of the Act and is helping to get the word out in the community. Let’s keep it up and ensure that we continue investing in the health and well-being of our communities!

Marcy Bowers is Solid Ground’s Advocacy Deputy Director and the Director of the Statewide Poverty Action Network.

Why it’s worth signing up for insurance coverage by March 31

King County "Coverage is Here" logo(Editor’s note: This article was authored by Gordon and Tom Gibbon of Swedish Medical Center and orginally appeared as an op-ed in the March 26 Seattle Times.)

We have less than a week to take advantage of the most significant opportunity in most of our lifetimes to strengthen our community. March 31 is the end of the initial enrollment period for low-cost health insurance.

We’ve been hearing a lot about the growing gaps in our community – gaps between wealthy and poor, between neighborhoods, between racial and ethnic groups.

King County has some of the healthiest communities in the world, yet there are many who have fallen behind. Our prosperity as a region depends on everyone being able to contribute and reach his or her full potential.

We now have a resource to help shrink those disparities; we have the opportunity for nearly everyone in King County to get affordable health care.

Whether you live in Queen Anne or SeaTac, whether or not you have a job and regardless of what language you speak, the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, provides a critical resource.

Before the new health exchange Washington Healthplanfinder went online in October, there were more than 200,000 uninsured adults in King County. Most had incomes that qualify them for subsidized or free health insurance under the new law.

If awareness and enrollment information can move this group to action, that’s a two-fisted blow against inequities.

First, the ACA gives people access to preventive care and routine medical care that can keep them safe and healthy enough to work and care for their families. Second, it gives them financial security against bankrupting medical bills or other emergency costs that can drain savings in an instant.

If we can do that, we’ll take 16 percent of residents ages 18 to 64 – most of whom are working in the service sector or as laborers, often part time – and raise their standards of living, without taking anything away from everyone else.

To be sure, narrowing the gap in health would require public-health strategies to address chronic diseases and injuries.

But insurance would at least provide people with more affordable access to care.

Right now, King County has some of the greatest disparities in health coverage in the country.

For example, adults in South King County cities such as Des Moines or Federal Way are seven to eight times more likely to be uninsured than adults in Mercer Island or Sammamish. Latinos are nearly four times as likely and African Americans more than twice as likely to be uninsured as whites.

If most uninsured people who qualify do enroll in the exchange, we could make a dramatic difference in health coverage. The rate of uninsurance in much of South King County could decrease from 30 percent to 10 percent.

The key is to spread the word. Survey results show that many of the uninsured remain unaware of their eligibility for a new type of affordable insurance. And they’re unaware that a deadline looms. The end of the first open enrollment period for private health plans is March 31.

The next open enrollment period for subsidized plans is in the fall, although enrollment in Apple Health, the state’s Medicaid program, continues all year.

As community leaders who are tasked by King County Executive Dow Constantine with championing health-insurance enrollment, we ask that you tell your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, employees and others that coverage is available now and is more affordable than you think.

Gordon McHenry Jr., President & CEO of Solid Ground, and Tom Gibbon of Swedish Medical Center, co-chair the Cover King County Leadership Circle and are appointed by the King County Executive.

Financial Fitness Tip: Time for a spring financial checkup

Solid Ground’s Financial Fitness Boot Camp and ConnectUp are working together to send out  financial fitness tips like these a few times a month through the ConnectUp Resource Wire and will re-post them here on the Solid Ground blog.

Financial Fitness Boot Camp's Coach JudySpring is almost here, and it’s a good time to get a checkup regarding your financial fitness. Ask yourself a few questions:

  • Are you experiencing anxiety around your bills and payments from the holidays?
  • Are you preparing your taxes or at least thinking about it? (April 15th is just around the corner!)
  • Are you tracking your spending using a budget or spending plan?
  • How much are you saving each month for emergencies?

Well, the above sounds like a lot to do and can be stressful. Using these questions, make a list, or what is referred to as a “Financial Fitness Action Plan.” Prioritize what is most important to you and write a statement explaining why it is important to you. Next, decide what your action steps will be to meet each objective. Who will you contact for information or clarification? Make sure you have a pen and paper handy when calling so you can write down who you spoke to and what you spoke about.

It’s close to tax time. Don’t fret; there are many sites that can prepare your taxes for free. Get all of your documents together so that your time and the preparer’s time will be well spent. To find a free tax preparation site near you, call 2.1.1 and tell the operator that you want information about free tax preparation services. Or text the word TAX and your 5-digit zip code to 313131 or email EITC@uwkc.org or visit United Way’s Tax Help website.

You might say that you don’t have enough money to save. Well, start with $5. The point is, “just do it!”

We would like to invite you all to call the Financial Fitness Boot Camp at either 206.694.6739 or 206.694.6776 and make an appointment to come and see one of Solid Ground’s financial counselors. They can pull your credit report for free, teach you how to develop a budget/spending plan, and teach you how to read your credit report and what to do if you need to dispute an item. They would be happy to assist you with whatever you want to focus on to help you reach your financial fitness goals! Don’t delay, call today!

Ensure YOUR economic security & financial freedom through planned giving!

Martha Swain and Mike Buchman

Martha Swain & Mike Buchman

When thinking about what it means to make a personal donation, writing a check once or twice a year to organizations you care about may come to mind. However, when money is tight, it may be challenging for some to give back. Many would like to assist charities and nonprofits whose values and beliefs align with their own, to help preserve these agencies for the future (Sargent and Shang). Planned giving is an alternative to direct donations that can allow donors to do just that.

With the assistance of legal and/or financial advisors, a planned gift is worked into aspects of estate or financial planning, and can include simple bequests in a will or estate plan, gifts of IRAs, retirement or pension plan assets like life insurance or 401K plans, and living trusts and charitable gift annuities.

Planned giving oftentimes provides additional monetary benefits for the donor as a means to prepare for the future and ensure economic stability for family. These benefits – depending on the type of gift chosen – can include tax deductions or other adjustments to finances that save money. Wise financial planning and asset building is an important part of life, regardless of age or income level, and it is essential to develop plans and prepare for the future.

Mike Buchman, employed with Solid Ground for nearly 20 years, and his wife Martha Swain, a Waldorf early childhood educator, began drafting their wills after their daughter, Maddy, was born. “We were obviously thinking about the future, about making the world a better place for our daughter,” Mike expresses. “We are solidly middle class, if that even exists anymore, and we don’t have a lot of wealth. Still, it felt important and right to put some aside for a few organizations that fed our passions and souls. It felt like we were investing in Maddy’s future.”

Mike and Martha chose to include Solid Ground in their planning process because of “the impact Solid Ground makes in the community and the integrity with which its staff does its work every day.”

Mike explained that “making this gift was so easy. We hired an estate planning attorney to help us write our wills. We met for about an hour and talked about our goals and then drafted the legal documents. Including planned giving was as easy as asking them how.”

Solid Ground strongly encourages you to meet with an estate planning attorney or financial advisor, as Mike has done, to ensure that your documents are accurate and fulfill your designs for the future.

Planned giving – in conjunction with estate and financial planning – offers you the opportunity to reach long-term financial stability, provide for your loved ones after you are gone, and support organizations that, with the help of your gift, will continue to provide much-needed services to your community.

“I’ve given a significant portion of my work life to Solid Ground and I think this is an organization that does exceptional things. … We believe that healthy nonprofit organizations are critically needed engines of compassion, service and change,” says Mike. By giving back to organizations that reflect the values you hold dear, you create a legacy of care and support.

We hope you will consider including a gift to Solid Ground when you meet with your advisors to plan for your future. If you already have named Solid Ground in your will, we would very much like the opportunity to thank you for your generosity. Of course, if you prefer to remain anonymous, your gift will be kept completely confidential. Please note that public recognition of your gift can encourage others to do the same.


For more information on planned giving, please consult your professional advisor. If you’re interested in being a part of Solid Ground’s next 40+ years, please contact Leah Lee at 206.694.6852 or at leahl@solid-ground.org.


Affordable Care Act: Help us continue to get the word out!

Image from U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services study - HealthCare.gov

U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services study – HealthCare.gov

King County is a national leader in obtaining health care coverage through expanded Medicaid and Qualified Health Plans. In 2013, King County set a goal of enrolling at least 180,000 residents (80,000 in Medicaid and 100,000 in subsidized Exchange coverage) by 31 March 2014, the end of the initial enrollment period.

On Friday, we convened the Executive Committee of the King County Enrollment Leadership Circle to review our progress. I’m pleased to report that by early this month, over 75,000 King County residents have been enrolled since October! Our challenge is that of those 75,000 new enrollees, only around 20,000 are enrolled in a Qualified (subsidized) Health Plan. Also, those enrolled between the ages of 19 and 34 are significantly low.

While King County is on-plan to achieve its goal of enrolling 80,000 persons in (expanding) Washington Apple Health (Medicaid), we need significant renewed effort to reach our goal of ensuring 100,000 eligible residents obtain affordable care through a Qualified Health Plan.

Solid Ground will remain a leader as a part of King County’s collective effort to leverage this historic opportunity (see The Affordable Care Act: A potential ‘life-changer’ for people living on low incomes). As we know well, education, employment and health care are essential to ending poverty.

That is whywe are encouraging everyone to talk with family, friends, colleagues and clients, especially those who are ages 19 – 34. Please initiate conversations regarding health care and encourage those who do not have coverage to enroll prior to 31 March 2014. Thank you!

Seattle employs financial empowerment to help families thrive

Financial Fitness Boot Camp's Coach Judy

Financial Fitness Boot Camp’s Coach Judy

Seattle will be the first city on the West Coast to open no-cost Financial Empowerment Centers. Solid Ground will partner with Neighborhood House to provide a satellite center, likely at Sand Point Housing at Magnuson Park, in order to offer easy access to financial counseling for families and individuals in our transitional and permanent housing programs. 

One-on-one counseling will help people reduce debt, build credit, guard against predatory lending practices, understand foreclosure, and protect against fraud. Asset development coaching and budgeting will lower monthly costs, increase income, buffer against sudden crises, and prepare people for retirement.

Seattle’s program is modeled after the first financial empowerment pilot, launched in 2008 by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The original pilot, according to the foundation, has helped over 19,000 families reduce their debt by more than $9 million.

Six Financial Empowerment Centers will open in 2014, with the main full-time site stationed at Neighborhood House in Rainier Vista. Each center will be positioned close to or within social service facilities that can offer additional resources for those living on low-incomes. Additional offices will be located at NewHolly, the Jim Wiley Community Center, YWCA Opportunity Place and North Seattle Community College.

Paul G. Allen Family Foundation provided a three year grant for the project, and is partnering with City of Seattle, Neighborhood House and United Way.

Breaking the cycle of poverty involves more than just helping people living on low-incomes make ends meet. At Solid Ground, we want people to be healthy, happy and build the skills they need to thrive.

In the coming year, we will implement our own plan to integrate financial empowerment into social service delivery at Solid Ground, developed during a six-month financial empowerment Learning Cluster hosted by the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED). And with the support from CFED through an 18-month Learning Cluster that began this month, our plan will provide the education and tools people living on low and moderate incomes need to move beyond just surviving to a place of stability, self-sufficiency and financial health.

The Affordable Care Act: A potential ‘life-changer’ for people living on low incomes

King County "Coverage is Here" logoIn partnership with King County Public Health, Solid Ground’s Family Assistance program has been engaged in outreach and education on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) since open enrollment began October 1. As the December 23 enrollment deadline to receive benefits starting January 1 approaches, it becomes more important than ever to reach out to King County residents.

Despite the well-reported problems with the federal website, HealthCare.gov, Washington State’s exchange site, wahealthplanfinder.org, has had relative success enrolling people, though not without its own challenges. While the state exchange site has had its hiccups, it is still performing better than the national federal enrollment website. As of December 3, wahealthplanfinder.org enrollment topped 175,000 while the federal exchange, which serves 36 states, enrolled about the same.

Stephanie Earhart, Family Assistance Lead Benefits Attorney, is managing Solid Ground’s Education and Outreach program for the ACA. According to her, both the federal and state website glitches are causing the most issues with enrollment.

“The problem with wahealthplanfinder.org is rooted in the fact that, in order to confirm an identity, a cross-check must be performed through the HealthCare.gov website – which also hooks up to the IRS, Social Security and immigration sites. If anything goes wrong with those hubs, we get an error code on our end. People enrolling will then be told to call the customer center, but those centers are overloaded with calls,” Stephanie explains.

Another option is to file a paper application. However, paper applications must still be entered into the same system, and thus will experience the same glitches consumers are struggling with. Stephanie mentions that in November, “only 17% of those on existing Medicaid plans had renewed them – likely because those renewals were filed as paper applications. There is a backlog now, and who knows when those will get processed.”

Instead, she encourages King County residents to use the Washington exchange website if possible or find an assistor to help set up an account and work through any issues that might arise.

Neighborcare Health has partnered with Solid Ground, acting as in-person assistors for those needing help with enrollment and navigating the website. A Neighborcare assistor provides enrollment support at Solid Ground every Tuesday between 1-5pm, or you can call 206.548.3013 to schedule a free appointment with an eligibility specialist at a local Neighborcare Health clinic.

One of the Education and Outreach program’s most important goals is to end confusion about ACA and the benefits offered – which is still causing people to hesitate to enroll. “I still talk to clients who have no idea about the Affordable Care Act, or what they have heard is bad. As an agency, that’s one of the reasons Solid Ground is supporting education and outreach. We want people to know that this is actually a good thing. We support it. You can trust it,” Stephanie expresses. She recommends the King County Public Health website as a great resource for more information on all the wonderful benefits – such as the 10 Essential Benefits – Affordable Care coverage has to offer.

We are spreading the message to clients, friends and family: ‘Coverage is here!’ To Stephanie – and many others at Solid Ground who work directly with people who qualify for the new free or low-cost health insurance – the implementation of the ACA is a blessing. Stephanie declares that, “Coming from the work I’ve done for the last 10 years, fighting to get people medical coverage – very sick people who don’t meet the disability standard – the fact that I can say, ‘You can get covered now,’ that’s my focus. For those living on low incomes, this is going to be a life-changer. True social justice.”

If you would like us to visit your community organization to do an education/outreach event, please contact Stephanie Earhart with the Family Assistance program: stephaniee@solid-ground.org or 206.694.6714.

Circulator bus makes the rounds

This piece was contributed by Kari Ware, Solid Ground’s Transportation Director.

Front view of a Solid Ground Circulator busAfter getting off to a slow start with just 74 riders on October 1, 2012, the Solid Ground Circulator bus is gaining momentum, with over 70,000 people served to date. Ridership is steadily growing each month. A year into the program we now average 303 riders each day!

The route is designed to get riders as close as possible to as many services as possible in the downtown Seattle core area. Riders are commenting that they wouldn’t be able to get to those much-needed services without our bus. They really appreciate our friendly, professional drivers and the dependable service.

Paratransit Evaluation Manager, Gaby Bell, acknowledged the “excellent customer service” provided by our drivers. She stated in an email that the drivers are “always polite and friendly,” and “Chuck,” Charles Sanford, “is especially wonderful, always has a smile and greeting, and makes everyone feel welcome and comfortable.”

The Circulator operates seven stops in the downtown core area, Monday through Friday, from 7am-4pm. This program, originally funded through the end of 2013 by SDOT with support of King County Metro, has been renewed for 2014. Routes and service hours will remain the same for the coming year, however we are looking to expand routes and include weekend service for 2015.

Last February, the Circulator was featured on KPLU 88.5FM in a piece by Paula Wissel, Free downtown bus is no longer a best kept secret.

There are no requirements to qualify to ride the bus and it is accessible to everyone, so feel free hop aboard when you are in the area and check it out!

As a reminder, the Circulator will be running on Christmas and New Year’s as these holidays fall on regularly scheduled service days.

You can find more information about the Circulator on the Solid Ground website.

Side view of a Solid Ground Circulator bus

Coverage is here!

Starting October 1, 2013, over 180,000 persons in King County (280,000 in Washington State) have the opportunity to obtain Medicaid or affordable subsidized medical insurance. This incredible opportunity is the result of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, with the new benefits beginning on January 1, 2014.

DuoLogosKing County Public Health is the lead agency in King County, and they have set a goal of enrolling at least 93,000 King County residents in this first year of eligibility. (See the Washington Healthplanfinder website for more information.)

I have the privilege of serving as one of the three co-chairs appointed by King County Executive Dow Constantine to ensure that nonprofit/community-based organizations, businesses and the medical community coordinate their respective sectors to actively partner with King County to educate, conduct outreach and assist the County and cities in enrolling those persons who are eligible to have affordable medical care.

I am proud that Solid Ground is one of a select group of partners approved by King County to engage in education and outreach about affordable care. And while Solid Ground will not be offering in-person enrollment assistance, we will refer people to community partners who can help people enroll.

If you would like us to visit your community organization to do an education/outreach event, please contact Stephanie Earhart with the Family Assistance Program: stephaniee@solid-ground.org or 206.694.6714.

Ensuring that low-income persons, including single adults, have Medicaid and that low- and lower-income residents (singles and families) have affordable quality medical care is a once in a lifetime occurrence. Having easy access to preventative medical care and to be able to receive medical treatment when sick or injured is a basic human right – one that has routinely been unavailable to those who are poor and oppressed. Medical care is fundamental to a healthy lifestyle and to our mission of ending poverty.

My ask is that every person at Solid Ground find a way to actively participate in ensuring that the communities we serve are aware of and take advantage of these critically important benefits. The goal is to activate Solid Ground in support of enrollment in the Affordable Care Act and to develop a list of various ways we all can participate. Please share any ideas you have with us. Working together, we can make a huge step in achieving our vision of a community that has moved beyond poverty and oppression to a place of thriving!

For more information, go to the Washington Healthplanfinder website.

Technology connects people living on low incomes with support networks

Guy on Cellphone by Brick WallIn our recent post “When homelessness hits home,” we reprinted Solid Ground Board President Lauren McGowan’s touching reflections on her mother’s passing, and the important role her cellphone had in keeping her in touch with loved ones during the years she experienced homelessness. As Lauren writes, “She felt safe outside as long as she could end the night with a text or a call to say, ‘Love you, love you more.’ … I always made sure she had a phone so we could maintain connection.”

ConnectUp logoSolid Ground’s ConnectUp (formerly Community Voice Mail) exists to keep people who are struggling to get by on low incomes and/or experiencing homelessness connected to support networks, jobs and housing opportunities via telecommunications access in King County, WA. Specifically, ConnectUp helps people access phone, voice mail, internet and other connections to the services they need. The program also does education and outreach on telecommunications assistance programs for service providers and people living on low incomes, and they broadcast information about community resources.

The following story, “A Homeless Man and His BlackBerry: It’s not loitering if you’re on your phone” by Kat Ascharya is reposted with permission by Mobiledia (originally published 6/12/13). It highlights just how important staying connected can be to the dignity, livelihood and emotional well-being of people experiencing homelessness.

You could tell he was different the moment he walked in the coffee shop. It wasn’t his appearance. He looked presentable, if a little rough around the edges, clutching an old BlackBerry to his barrel chest. It was how he moved: warily, shoulders hunched over and eyes darting. The body language would read as suspicious, if not for the flicker of fear and apprehension in his eyes – as if he was scared of being noticed, vigilant to his surroundings and desperately trying to blend in at the same time.

He ordered a coffee, carefully counting out coins on the counter. He sat down at the table near me and pulled out his phone, just like nearly everyone else at the shop. He punched in a few numbers and began talking in a low voice, discreet but urgent. I was only a few seats away, but I couldn’t help but overhear his conversations.

Did someone have some cash jobs for him? Could he crash at a friend of a friend’s place? Could he get a ride out to the soup kitchen? After a few calls, it became clear: he was homeless. A homeless man with a smartphone.

Bert isn’t unsheltered. He bounces between emergency shelters and friends’ couches while he seeks temporary, cash-based day-laborer work. He refuses, in fact, to call himself homeless. “This is just a temporary condition,” he tells me more than once, after we struck up a conversation. Over and over again, he said he would get himself out of “this tight spot,” though he was vague about how long he’d been in it and how he got there. He made it clear: he hadn’t given up.

It wasn’t easy to engage him in conversation. When I first asked how he liked his BlackBerry, he looked at me like I was crazy. Later, he chalked up his guarded nature to the fact that he often doesn’t have casual conversations anymore. Most people, he said, tend to avoid him once they realize he is poor and transient. “You can’t hide it, being poor,” he said.

He made a joke about people acting as if poverty was an infectious disease. They give him a wide berth and pretend he’s not there. “I can go whole days without people not even looking at me,” he said. “And when they do, it often means they’re sizing you up, wondering if they need to kick you out or something.” The result, he said, is a sense of exile, from any feeling of belonging you have to the human race.

His phone, then, functions as an important conduit. On the surface, it’s his most important, practical tool. He can call places for work with it. He can call up shelters and other social services to see what’s available. He calls public transportation to find out which bus lines are running and check out schedules.

E-mail and text is especially important. He can reach out to friends to see if he can crash with them for a night or two, especially if the weather is rough. But he has to be careful. “You don’t want to impose,” he said. “You can’t exhaust your friends. Otherwise they’ll get tired of helping you, thinking, ‘Why are you still struggling?'” The hidden worry is that you’ll never leave.

Ironically, all this is easier to manage over text and e-mail than the phone. “You don’t have to worry about sounding upbeat and confident all the time,” he said. No one wants to help out the hopeless, and sometimes it’s not really so easy to disguise the worry and anxiety from your voice.

Slippery Slopes
Despite nearly everyone owning a cell phone, we think of them as luxuries, especially as data plans approach $100 a month. The idea of a homeless man with an iPhone, but no job or roof over his head, is discomfiting, mostly because poverty is perhaps one of the last bastions of unexamined prejudice in the U.S. Few would argue that people of different races or genders shouldn’t own phones, but it’s still common to temper sympathy for the homeless or destitute if they have a phone.

Even the most progressive areas of the country can show a certain callousness to what poverty should look and feel like. In San Francisco, for example, city supervisor Malia Cohen sparked controversy when she posted a picture of a homeless man on Facebook, talking on a phone while huddled underneath a freeway overpass. “This kind of made me laugh,” she commented, which led to an uproar and eventual removal of the picture. Ironically, California last month decided to expand their Lifeline program to give free phones and service to the homeless, recognizing the value of the devices for the disadvantaged.

The reality is homelessness is a simple term for a complex sociological condition, affected by a mosaic of factors that interact and affect one another in often unexpected ways. Large-scale trends like unemployment combust with local factors, such as lack of affordable housing or services easily accessible and open to those in need. Add in volatile personal situations – like addiction, family violence, financial instability or simply being far from family – you have a slippery slope to stand upon.

The homeless themselves range from the “unsheltered” living on the streets to doubled-up families living in single-occupancy homes. That includes those in transitory housing or emergency shelters, as well as the famous 2004 case of a student at NYU who attended school while sleeping at the library and showering at the gym.

About 20 out of every 10,000 people are homeless, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Anyone without enough personal or social capital can get caught in the cycle, and it’s not easy to pull out, when you consider the tremendous shame and judgment they experience within themselves and from the world at large. But there’s one effective tool that can help. Yes, phones.

Keeping Up Appearances
On another level, Bert said his phone connects him to less tangible, but still important, resources. He knows people can reach him, no matter where he sleeps at night. He gets daily e-mails from an online ministry, with inspirational messages and passages from the Bible. Those keep up his spirit and faith and keep him going. He can read news on the browser, too. Ironically, his biggest criticism of BlackBerry is the browser: it’s slow and outdated and most websites won’t load on it anymore. He only gets a certain amount of time on the computer at the public library, so he often begins researching jobs and housing on his phone and makes a list of websites he wants to visit when he gets on a computer with a faster connection.

The phone also, in part, structures his day in an often chaotic life. He has an exhaustive list of places to charge his phone, and he makes sure to hit them at some point during the day. He’s careful about his power and data usage and carries his charger at all times, in one of the capacious pockets of his army jacket. “When I see a free outlet somewhere, I have to say, it feels like Christmas,” he said. Free Wi-Fi inspires the same feeling; he can save up his valuable data usage.

But the most valuable aspect about his phone, is simply that it makes him look like everyone else. “You won’t believe it,” he tells me, “but if I didn’t have my phone, I probably couldn’t just sit here and have my coffee and be talking to you. It gives me something I can do in public. It’s not loitering if I’m typing or talking on my phone.” Loitering, he said, is often a good excuse to kick the homeless out of a place. And a phone is a passport that lets him stay in places longer than he would otherwise.

“You have to realize about my situation, most people don’t look beyond appearances,” he said. And if there’s one thing that matters when you’re homeless, according to Bert, it’s appearances. The minute the facade cracks and reveals his struggle, no one wants to be around you. No one wants to see it. People kick you out of places; they can tell you don’t belong anywhere.

In talking with Bert about not just phones, but his life in general, I realized he’s someone with a clear-eyed inventory of his scant resources. And he maximizes them with an eye to maintain appearances. Within that ruthless calculus, a phone was more important than his car, which he sold after the winter and didn’t need to sleep in as a last resort. And besides, he said, cops are on the lookout for people sleeping in cars – it’s not as practical as you think.

He used the car money to save for his phone bill, as well as a cheap $30-a-month membership to a local 24-hour gym in a central part of town, which gives him regular access to a hot shower and a place he can go late at night if he needs. He knows that sounds ludicrous, but says nothing marks a homeless man more than pungent body odor and an unclean appearance.

You could have all the iPhones in the world with you, he said, but if you don’t have a regular way to stay clean, that’s the most dangerous thing of all in a precarious situation. Nothing gets a homeless person kicked out faster, rejected from a job instantly or denied housing than looking dirty. He kept repeating, “Dirty ain’t dignified.” It’s often that dignity that Bert fights so hard to maintain, even at the expense of other things – but definitely not at the cost of a cell phone.

Through the Cracks
Bert’s ability to stay afloat and even keep up his personal dignity sheds light not only on how central phones are to our lives – no matter how poor you are – but also the world’s poverty of generosity and compassion. For every great example of helping others – such as the Reddit user who found a Chicago homeless man and delivered a care package to him – there are countless others who slip through the cracks, who walk in through doors of public places, face stares of cold evaluation and wonder if they’ll be kicked out.

Bert lives assuming that people’s generosity and compassion are limited to a certain point – and once you push past that point, you’re lost beyond all help. Despite his situation, he’s a proud man, but burdened with the “double consciousness” that marginalized people often have – able to see himself both through his eyes, and through the eyes of how others would judge him. And it was clear that the discrepancy between the two distressed him, and much of his survival strategy tried to bridge that gap.

I saw Bert only a few times after our first conversation, though we never did talk as in-depth. Sometimes he let me buy him a coffee refill, though he wanted to buy the first cup himself. But after a few months, I didn’t see Bert anymore, and I’m not really sure what happened to him.

Did he finally pull himself out of his “temporary condition,” as he called it? Or was he like countless others who slipped through the cracks into the shadowy netherworld of genuine destitution and poverty, becoming one of the “unsheltered”? I just don’t know. He may still have his own phone number, but he remains out of reach, lost somewhere in a world where social ties are tenuous connections, no matter how many devices we have.

Downtown circulator bus eases access to services

This bus gets you to solid ground.

A pilot project to provide free rides for people living on low incomes and those who access health and human services in the downtown area began Monday, October 1.

~English: Downtown circulator bus flyer 
~Español:
Ómnibus de servicio gratuito para el centro 

Two buses, a 23-passenger vehicle and a 19-passenger vehicle, run a fixed 4.5 mile route with seven stops located near services such as Harborview Medical Center, Downtown Emergency Service Center, Social Security Administration, Downtown Public Health Center and more.

This sticker, affixed to Metro bus signs, identifies each circulator stop.

The buses operate Monday through Friday, with the first bus leaving Harborview at 7 am and driving in a clockwise route through town. The last bus leaves Harborview at 4 pm. Buses arrive at each stop approximately every 25 to 30 minutes. The stops are identified by a sticker affixed to the standard Metro bus stop signs.

The decision to end the Ride Free Area was part of a compromise to pass the Congestion Reduction Charge that kept Metro from immediate 17% cuts. The free downtown circulator is an effort by Solid Ground, King County and the City of Seattle to provide transit services to people who live downtown and those who access downtown housing, food, health care and other services.

“Solid Ground’s focus is creating a response that meets the needs of this underserved population,” said Gordon McHenry, Jr., President & CEO of Solid Ground, which operates housing, food, homeless prevention and other programs aimed at helping people move from poverty to thriving.

“Given fiscal constraints, a downtown circulator is a practical response to the needs of people who are the least advantaged in our community. Solid Ground’s drivers understand the population being served and have experience providing transit services in the downtown core,” McHenry said.

The pilot project is a three-way partnership with Metro Transit providing vehicles, the City of Seattle providing $400,000 in funding that was previously allocated to support the Ride Free Area, and Solid Ground handling the operations. Solid Ground’s Seattle Personal Transit program has operated ACCESS transportation through contracts with Metro for more than 20 years.

Circulator stops:

Stop #1: 9th & Alder — closest stop to:

Stop #2: 4th & Yesler — closest stop to:

Stop #3: 1st & Marion — closest stop to:

Stop #4: 1st & Pine — closest stop to:

Stop #5: 1st & Bell — closest stop to:

Stop #6: 9th & Virginia — closest stop to:

Stop #7: Boren & Seneca — closest stop to:

How health care ruling impacts low-income folks in Washington State

With all the excitement over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act, we asked some of Solid Ground’s experts: What does it mean for low-income folks in Washington State? We present the following report thanks to Kate Baber of the Statewide Poverty Action Network and Stephanie Earhart, lead Benefits Attorney with Solid Ground’s Family Assistance program.

Photo from the Christian Science Monitor

Yesterday, the Supreme Court upheld the 2010 federal health care reform law, known as the Affordable Care Act. This landmark decision allows the imple-mentation of the Affordable Care Act to move forward and will greatly expand low- and middle-income Americans’ quality and access to health care.

The Affordable Care Act will bring much needed relief to low-income communities across Washington. Since the onset of the Great Recession, access to health care coverage has become further out of reach for families and individuals due to economic hardship resulting from job loss, debt and foreclosure, cuts to employer-sponsored health coverage, and reductions in state-funded health care programs. As the economy recovers, health care reform will ensure Washington has a healthy workforce, children and students are better able to learn, and seniors and adults living with disabilities can survive.

Beginning in 2014, 800,000 of Washington’s 1 million uninsured people will be able to access health insurance. In addition to expanding access to coverage, the Affordable Care Act includes consumer protections that will greatly improve the quality and lower the cost of health care coverage for the 5.8 million Washingtonians who are currently insured.

Here’s how health care reform will benefit your community:

Reforms Already in Place:

  • Insurance providers are barred from imposing lifetime benefit limits on people who are sick and need expensive care to get better.
  • Insurance providers cannot deny coverage to children with pre-existing conditions.
  • Adults with pre-existing conditions can access care through a Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan.
  • Children can stay on their parents’ health care plan until the age of 26.

Reforms to Be Implemented in 2014:

  • Medicaid will be expanded to cover an additional 333,000 low-income Washingtonians. In Washington State, everyone at or below 133% of the Federal Poverty Level will be covered by Medicaid beginning in 2014.
  • Overall, 477,000 low- and moderate-income people will become eligible for subsidized care in the new health insurance exchange program.
  • Insurance providers cannot deny coverage to adults with pre-existing conditions and can’t impose limitations on enrollment.
  • Insurance providers cannot charge higher premiums to women or sicker people and have new restrictions on how much they can charge seniors.
  • Prescription drugs will be more affordable for 1 million seniors and people living with disabilities in Washington as the gap in Medicare drug coverage begins to close until it is eliminated by 2020.
  • Seniors will be able to access free preventative care.
  • Deductibles and co-payments for preventative services will be eliminated for everyone.
  • Coverage will be expanded for early retirees who are too young to qualify for Medicare, but no longer receive employer-sponsored coverage.

State subsidized health care programs that Poverty Action has worked hard to protect from budget cuts and elimination during the Great Recession will receive new federal support and will be combined with Medicaid and expanded. These programs include: health care coverage for kids (Apple Health), coverage for people living with disabilities and mental health issues (Medical Care Services), optional Medicaid programs such as dental care and medical interpreters, and coverage for low-income, working families (Basic Health).

If you’d like to know more about Medicaid Expansion in Washington State, go to: http://www.hca.wa.gov/hcr/me.

Low-cost Internet for families receiving free school lunches

Editor’s Note: This article was originally written by Lambert Rochfort for the Seattle/King County Community Voice Mail Blog.

Would your family like to have high-speed Internet at home but can’t afford it? A new program from Comcast called Internet Essentials offers high-speed Internet for $10/month, a laptop computer for $150, and free Internet training, for families with children who receive free school lunches through the National School Lunch Program.

The Internet Essentials program was created because, when Comcast acquired NBC Universal in January, the Federal Communications Commission signed off on the merger so long as Comcast agreed to help low-income households get online.

Participants in the Internet Essentials program will receive:

  • Fast home Internet for just $9.95 a month + tax.
  • A low-cost netbook computer available at initial enrollment for just $149.99 + tax.
  • Access to free Internet training, online, in print and/or in the classroom.
  • Norton Security Suite online security software, with parental controls.

The computer is optional, you do not have to get the computer to receive discounted internet service. If you chose to buy the $150 computer, they will send you a computer coupon, a list of eligible computers and a list of local stores that sell those computers and accept Comcast vouchers.

Comcast promises that there will be no price increases, no activation fees, and no equipment rental fees.

With cable Internet like Comcast Internet Essentials, your family should be able to do all the things they want to do online, like email, homework, sharing photos, job searches, paying bills, watching videos, downloading music and more. The download speed is up to 1.5 Mb per second and upload speed is up to 384 Kb per second.

Your household is eligible to participate if it meets all of the following criteria:

  • You are located where Comcast offers Internet service: Comcast does offer Internet in most of King County; when you apply for the program, they can tell you whether their Internet service is available at your address.
  • You have not subscribed to Comcast Internet service within the last 90 days.
  • You do not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment.
  • You have at least one child receiving free school lunches under the National School Lunch Program: Children are eligible to receive free school lunches if their household income is below 130% of Federal Poverty Level, which amounts to monthly income of $1,594 for a family of two, $2,008 a month for a family of three, $2,422 for a family of four, $2,836 for a family of five (and add $414 of monthly income for each additional family member).

Customers will be accepted into the program for three full school years. Any household that qualifies during the next three school years will remain eligible for the program as long as a child eligible for a free school lunch is still living in the household. To participate in Internet Essentials, you must verify that your child is currently certified to receive free school lunches by providing a copy of this year’s acceptance letter or other document from your child’s school or school district demonstrating free-lunch status at their school. You will need to re-certify your child’s school enrollment each year to continue to participate in Internet Essentials and receive a discounted Internet service rate.

Starting this school year, families may sign up for Internet Essentials by calling 1-855-8-INTERNET (1-855-846-8376). Note that an application is not available publicly, you must call Comcast to request an application. When you call, they will verify your eligibility and then mail you a customized application to your address, which only you can use. If your application is approved they will send you an acceptance letter with instructions on how to get your internet service set up. For more information call 1-855-846-8376 or visit their website InternetEssentials.com.

Note: Solid Ground does not yet have any experience with or feedback about this service. If you sign up, let us know how it goes for you! Thanks.

Straight talk on free phones

Living on a low income and can’t afford a cell phone? There are a few options available to receive a free cell phone with low-cost “Lifeline” pay-as-you-go plans, and it’s becoming a big business, with full-page newspaper and internet ads touting one brand or another. (In fact with SafeLink using Google ads, it is quite possible that you, dear reader, will find a SafeLink ad on this very blog post!) Why so much marketing money being spent on a what seems like it should be a loss-leader business?

Lifeline cellphone programs are funded by the Universal Service Fund (USF), a fund created by the FCC to help low-income consumers get connected. All phone companies must contribute to this fund; their “contributions” largely come from Universal Service Fees, which they charge telephone consumers on our monthly phone bills. The Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) reimburses the phone companies around $10 a month for each Lifeline customer.

We asked Lambert Rochfort, Program Manager for Seattle Community Voice Mail (CVM) and an expert on telecommunications access issues, to evaluate the two main plans available in  Washington, Assurance Wireless and SafeLink Wireless. Here’s what he had to say (the bulk of this originally appeared on the Seattle/King County Community Voice Mail blog earlier this year.)

If you or someone you know would like to get a low-cost, pay-as-you-go cell phone, I want to let you know about the two Lifeline prepaid cellphone programs currently available, Assurance Wireless and SafeLink Wireless. SafeLink (from Tracfone) and Assurance (from Virgin Mobile) both offer a free phone, up to 250 free minutes every month, plus free voice mail, caller ID and call waiting. SafeLink also offers two other options: 125 minutes that carry over to the next month or 68 international minutes (that also carry over monthly). These programs do not require a contract, monthly bills, or a credit check.

There are also Lifeline plans (contracts) offered by AT&T and Sprint, which we do not recommend because they require a one- or two-year contract, they are more expensive than prepaid programs, and require a credit check. They also don’t offer many minutes and have limited coverage areas, charge overage fees for additional minutes, as well as roaming fees for using the phone out of the coverage area. These overage and roaming fees have caused many low-income people to get into major debt with the phone companies.

With either Assurance or SafeLink, during the first few days of each month, your monthly allotment of free minutes will be added to your phone. If you use all your free minutes before the end of the month, you will need to buy additional minutes, which can be purchased online, by phone and at retail stores on top-up cards. SafeLink charges 10¢ for each additional minute in Washington (which is $25 for 250 minutes), while Assurance offers either 250 extra minutes for $5 or 750 extra minutes and 1,000 text messages for $20. Prepaid mobile minutes are taxed at a rate of 11%.

Note that to apply for a Lifeline phone, you must provide a unique physical mailing address; they will not send a phone to an address that has already received one, and they will not send a phone to P.O. boxes or commercial addresses. So, you will not be eligible if you live in a shelter or other group housing situation where each resident doesn’t have their own unique address, or if you live in a car or on the street. Although, many people who are homeless or live in group housing use a friend’s or family member’s address on their application, and the phone companies actually encourage this.

To be eligible for either Lifeline program, you must either receive DSHS benefits or your income must be below 135% of poverty level. The eligible benefits are:

  • Food Stamps (SNAP)
  • Medical Assistance
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Disability Lifeline (General Assistance)
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
  • State Family Assistance (SFA)
  • DSHS Chore Services
  • Refugee Assistance
  • Community Options Program Entry System (COPES)

SafeLink and Assurance both require a DSHS client ID and last 4 digits of your social security number to qualify based on program participation.  To apply based on income, your gross monthly income must be below these guidelines:

1-person household: $ 1,218
2-person household: $ 1,639
3-person household: $ 2,060
4-person household: $ 2,481
5-person household: $ 2,901
6-person household: $ 3,322
7-person household: $ 3,743
8-person household: $ 4,164
Each additional person: + $ 421

To qualify on income, you will need to mail them documentation of your income, such as a federal or state tax return, current income statement or W-2 form from an employer, three consecutive months of current pay stubs, Social Security statement of benefits, retirement or pension benefits statement, unemployment or Workers Comp statement of benefits, or other legal documentation that shows income.

Based on Community Voice Mail’s (CVM) analysis, Assurance Wireless is the best deal overall for Lifeline cell phones right now.

To apply for Assurance Wireless, call 1.800.395.2108 or print and mail their application from their website assurancewireless.com.

Disability Lifeline appeals beyond August 2010

We want to clarify a recent post on this blog about how to appeal termination notices for Disability Lifeline benefits in Washington state.

While a first round of termination notices was mailed in August, 2010, termination notices will continue to be mailed to folks as they reach the 24-month limit.

Regardless of when you get a termination notice, you will have to register your appeal by the end of that month if you want to keep your benefits coming until your appeal is ruled upon.

You can appeal during a 90-day time frame, but if you do not appeal during the month you get your notification, your benefits will not continue during the time you are waiting for your fair hearing.

Please go back to the original post for details on how to appeal.

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