The Campaign for Cash, a leadership group convened by the Washington State Poverty Action Network, works to make direct cash assistance easily available for all who need it by organizing community partners and building leadership by those most impacted by unfair systems in our state.

As we approach the 2024 legislative session, the Campaign for Cash wants to tell our stories about what it’s like to receive cash assistance and live on a low income in Washington state through a series of interviews and conversations. We hope that by sharing our experience, we can show that cash assistance programs are a lifeline for many but must do more to provide a pathway out of poverty for the people they exist to help. We hope that our voices can influence policy change to build a system that works for those most impacted by poverty in our state.

Janell is a member of the Campaign for Cash who shares her experience with ABD, HEN, and SSI benefits in this interview.

What has been your experience receiving cash assistance in Washington?

Janell: I had signed up with the HEN program, housing and essential needs. And I qualified because I’m legally blind and as part of that they helped me sign up for SSI and SSDI benefits. It takes a really long time not to only fill out the application to get approved, but it takes a long time for them to work through it and validate if you qualify or not.

While I was waiting for that, the HEN program was able to pay $1000 per month for rent for me and they gave me a stipend every month. It was a $197 at first. I believe they changed that recently, but they gave me a $197 per month and I was able to use that and their assistance to use for rent.

Once I did get qualified for SSI and SSDI, it took I wanna say less than or just about a year before I was qualified, then I started to get around $900 a month with those benefits. And they had like a huge lump sum that came in – I didn’t know at first that they will give you the money from when you first applied, so I had like a huge back pay that they gave me. It was really helpful for getting things for the house – furniture and pots and pans and just daily household things that I needed. And just to get on my feet and be better prepared and to transition into adulthood. I also experienced foster care, so it was really helpful to have this assistance just to be able to be a normal person.

What was the process of getting onto cash assistance like?

It’s not easy trying to get SSI or SSDI at all. My sister told me that I might have to hire a lawyer just to help just to defend me that I am legally blind, and in my head, I was like “that’s dumb – how are they gonna dispute that I’m blind?” It was crazy because they wanted me to go do one of their tests for them. It was a light test which doesn’t make sense because I can’t see letters or numbers from a distance or even close on my phone.

I did their light test and they said I wasn’t blind. Then my doctor wrote a letter and told them my vision and they’re like “oh, you are blind!” It wasn’t until the doctor wrote to them saying like “this is how much she can see” that they’re like “oh okay yeah you qualify.”

Their test to see if you’re blind enough or if you’re disabled enough is not fair or equitable enough. It doesn’t seem like they’re actually trying to help. It seems like more of a hindrance. You have to do so much to prove that you need this assistance and it’s a struggle when this is the only thing you have to help you.

Why is it important for you to receive cash assistance?

Having programs and services that are helping me financially are helpful because I need stability in order to grow. And I need the assistance just to get on my feet so that I feel like I can contribute back to my community in a way. It’s frustrating when it’s being made so much harder while also facing a disability and these programs are just there because I’m in a very vulnerable spot.

I’m not coming here and begging because I’m gonna waste it. I’m coming and begging because it’s needed, it’s necessary, it’s something that I need to survive in this world.

We are each the experts in our own lives and know how to meet our needs better than anyone else. We should all be able to get direct, flexible cash assistance when we need it.