Reaching Solid Ground: An unexpected world

Dan Terrance, a former participant in Solid Ground’s Family Assistance Program, shared his story with us for our July 2011 Groundviews newsletter. To read the entire issue, visit our Publications webpage.

Dan Terrance-Alaska dock

A vintage snapshot of Dan Terrance, Family Assistance program participant, during his Alaskan fishing industry days.

If anyone can vouch for the reality that there are holes in the social services safety net, it’s Dan Terrance. He learned the hard way about assumptions our society makes about people living in poverty, and the dehumanizing effect this has. Back in 2005, a fall on the job shattered his left arm and ended his 21-year maritime career: as a Merchant Marine, then on cruise ships, and then on fishing boats. “Six surgeries later,” he says, “I ran out of money – and this shoulder started to act up two years ago – and the next thing you know, you’re in a world that you’d never expect to be in.” A hardworking, college-educated, former world traveler, Dan spiraled into homelessness, with public assistance as his only source of income.

While the surgeries restored some use of his arm, his shoulder is inoperable. Dan describes his injury: “What I’ve got, it’s a soft tissue injury, the tendons are all messed up – and because it hasn’t been taken care of, it’s just deteriorating. Basically, it can’t be fixed. Steroid injections, they don’t work. They put me on pain pills. Physical therapy just made it worse – so I was just stuck.”

Fight for restored dignity

Dan first connected with Solid Ground’s Family Assistance program – whose staff attorneys provide free legal help to people being unjustly denied public assistance benefits – when he was fighting to prove to the Department of Social & Health Services (DSHS) that he couldn’t go back to the fishing industry. DSHS wanted to cut his Disability Lifeline benefits for people unable to work.

“DSHS, from the get go, said there’s nothing wrong with me. They had me have an assessment. Their doctor said there’s pretty much nothing wrong with me that aspirins can’t cure.” But the pain he experienced told him otherwise. So, he says, “I stayed persistent at it. Then I got an MRI in November of 2009 that showed that I had serious problems.” So, finally, his benefits were temporarily extended.

But then a year later, DSHS determined him no longer incapacitated. So after consulting with Family Assistance Senior Attorney Stephanie Earhart, Dan successfully defended himself at an Administrative Hearing, and his benefits were restored once again. “I won because [DSHS] tried to say that I could go back to doing the work that I did. Now the fishing industry is the most vicious, hardest work there is. And I don’t care what your job position: Everybody has to be physically capable on a ship for emergencies – you cannot be up there with a bad limb – you become hazardous to your fellow crew members. And the judge sided with me.”

Dan T. holding his artwork

Born in Alaska, Dan holds a piece of his artwork in the Haida/Tlingit style.

A world of hurt

After he won his hearing, Dan spent his time productively, studying to get MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) certification, volunteering with the Pike Market Food Bank and maintaining computers in the Senior Center there, and creating his native Alaskan artwork. But then, while taking a shower at the men’s shelter where he was staying, he says, “I got a backpack stolen: laptop, all my schooling, my medical records, my drawings, cell phone, my pain pills. I gotta start all over again.”

Things seemed to be looking up when he moved out of the shelter into low-income housing in late October 2010, but then he learned in November that his benefits were going to be cut again, because he hadn’t returned paperwork. As it turns out, DSHS had mistakenly sent the paperwork to the men’s shelter where he no longer lived, and then penalized him for their mistake.

“Without my money, I can’t pay my rent; without paying my rent, I’m going to get evicted. So then what they’re doing is putting you right back out on the street, in harm’s way.” To make matters worse, DSHS “… began to say that my MRI was irrelevant. Within months, it was too old!” So he had to fight to get another MRI, costing $3,000.

With all of this stress, something had to give – and in January 2011, Dan suffered a heart attack. “I was here at six in the morning, waiting to do my maintenance on these computers, and it felt like a fire poker going right into the center of my chest.” Yet just a week later, with bandages still on his surgical wounds and no money for bus fare, he found himself walking over a mile uphill to obtain medical records, because DSHS demanded he prove he had a heart attack. When he got to the hospital office, he learned it would cost $1 a page to print his records – and there were 40 pages. Hospital staff, realizing his desperation, printed it for free.

At the breaking point now, Dan got back in touch with Stephanie. “I called her and said, ‘I’m in a world of hurt with these people.’ ”

Navigating the system

Dan says, “Stephanie knows the system, she knows what’s right, how to take care of things. She kept saying, ‘This is outRAGEous!’ So, she immediately sends a request for an extension. And then she got me in touch with Tony [a Family Assistance Legal Intern]. And then after that, it was all phones and emails and letters. ‘Can you do this?’ And I’d do it. And he would ask me to fill this out so he could get medical records, so I’d fill this out and send it back.

“They saved me a world of all that grief, stress. And I suppose they do that for a lot of other people. I still don’t know the system! And I finally got the MRI in July. As this radiologist says, it’s worsened since the last MRI. They found me incapacitated for another year. And so Stephanie and Tony got them off my back. They handled all the interoffice communications. So that’s what they did for me; they got the stress off.

“This was a completely honest injury, on the job. There’s a lot of people in a bad way that are not there because of drugs, alcohol or crime. It’s just the facts of life. And anyone could end up there.

“Here I am, five years later, six surgeries later, trying to get back into the workforce, trying to get a home going, a daily ritual. I do what I can, I volunteer. I give back what I can so I’m not just leaching off the system. And without their help, who knows where I would be.”

For more information about Solid Ground’s Family Assistance program, contact Senior Attorney Stephanie Earhart at 206.694.6714 or familyassistance@solid-ground.org, or visit www.solid-ground.org/Programs/Legal/Family.

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