The Lantern Books Blog: 2006 Essay Contest Runner-Up, Christal Drake
March 29, 2007 8:00am
The Invisible People
by Christal Drake from Oak Lawn, Illinois
I remember passing the Pacific Garden Mission on my way to work every morning, wondering about the people that were standing in line to receive a free breakfast from the homeless shelter. The clothing they wore appeared a little baggy, but it did not look torn or dirty. Why were these people waiting in long lines for a hand-out instead of making their way to work or finding a job? Chicago is such a large city. Surely, anyone that made a sincere effort to work and be self-supporting could find some way to generate enough income to pay for their own breakfast. Although it was possible that some of the people in line were sick, they were well enough to stand in long lines out in the cold. If they really had a legitimate medical problem, they would not be standing in this line. In the United States of America, there are so many government programs for the sick and injured. It always seemed there was only one conclusion to draw about these undesirable people cluttering the sidewalk outside of the Mission: they must be lazy.
I have always been fiercely independent, working full-time and paying my own way since I was 18 years old. As a single, self-supporting woman, I understand the importance of saving money and building a cash reserve. For years, I made regular contributions to my savings, retirement and stock accounts. I purchased a home and paid off my debts. For the first time in my life, at the age of 44, I truly felt comfortable and financially free.
The euphoria of financial freedom did not last very long. Suddenly, at the age of 45, I was struggling with a debilitating, work-related shoulder injury that would require multiple surgeries and an extensive period of medical leave. My employer of 11 years would not allow me to return to work with medical restrictions and terminated my employment. I no longer had health insurance coverage, and all living and medical expenses had to be paid from my savings. I had extremely limited physical abilities, and things were quickly spiraling out of control.
I learned many things as I fought to effect changes in my life. In the United States, private insurance companies consider you to be uninsurable if you are actively receiving treatment for an injury and they will not issue a policy. Employers are required to offer health insurance coverage under COBRA, but the monthly premiums for a policy conversion to individual coverage is unaffordable. For me, the premium payment required was $1,787 per month or over $21,000 per year.
There are clinics that provide free medical care to those in need, but this does not include treatment for work-related injuries. Work-related injuries must be treated within the strict confines of the Workers’ Compensation system. Four years have passed, and I am still waiting for a decision from the Illinois Industrial Commission regarding the status of my Workers’ Compensation claim. Until the court renders a decision, payment for all medical care is solely the responsibility of the patient.
The Workers’ Compensation system requires that injured workers make a sincere effort to return to gainful employment and minimize the financial damages incurred by the employer. My medical restrictions are permanent, and I must make a career change. I knew it would be challenging to make a career change with limited physical abilities, but I was amazed at the size of this mountain.
Under the law, an injured worker does not have access to funded vocational rehabilitation programs until the court has made a ruling. The average time to receive a court ruling is now in excess of three years. Private vocational rehabilitation programs are extremely expensive and require payment at the time of service if you do not have health insurance. Tuition payments for universities and private vocational schools are unaffordable. People that have a college degree are not eligible for tuition grants or assistance. Financial lenders do not approve loan applications for people that have no income. Private foundations that offer grants or scholarships usually require that you are enrolled in an accredited university program or have an established track record in the profession.
Single people do not qualify for most government assistance programs. The few programs that acknowledge single people require a declaration of disability by the Social Security Administration. The Social Security Administration made an error processing my disability application and denied benefits. I had to hire an attorney to navigate the appeals process. Two years have passed since my initial application, and it will take more than 18 additional months to schedule a hearing with an administrative judge. To date, I have received no communication from the Social Security Administration regarding the hearing they require to correct the error made by a member of their staff.
In this age of technology, it is difficult to understand the amount of time an injured person must walk uphill on a legal treadmill, just waiting to be acknowledged. As you climb each hill in stride, there is a continued hope that this time you will meet the criteria for assistance. The disappointment found at the top leaves you feeling invisible; people seem to be looking at you, but they do not really see you. We have a disjointed assistance system in the United States that fosters dependence and makes little sense. Employers are required to offer workers the option to continue their health coverage, but the premiums are unregulated and outrageous. Applications for government programs require people with no health insurance to submit evidence of recent medical exams which they cannot afford. Medical providers will not treat work-related injuries outside of the Workers’ Compensation system, but if you are not actively receiving medical treatment for these injuries our Social Security system does not consider you to be disabled. Injured people desperately want independence and need flexible work situations, not a never-ending stream of applications and forms.
As I walked into the dimly lit office of the Department of Human Services to apply for food stamps, I thought about the people waiting in line at the Pacific Garden Mission. I wondered how many of these people were struggling with injuries or wading through our legal system, feeling invisible. I wanted to apologize for my ignorance and for characterizing them as lazy. I now know that there are many reasons for homelessness, and can only imagine the journey that has led them to stand patiently in line for a meal.