Benefit Barriers

New High-Security Checkpoints Stand Between the Elderly and Their Benefits.






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Publication: The Stranger
Author: Madrid, Cienna
Date published: January 11, 2012

Seventy-four-year-old Situ Lizhen is worried about collecting her Social Security checks this summer. Although she has collected benefits for more than a decade, the retired

Chinese native who lives on Beacon Hill has reservations about visiting a new Social Security Administration (SSA) office when it opens in June. Rather than the office she goes to now, which is more akin to visiting a driver's license bureau, Lizhen will be required to navigate a gauntlet of Homeland Security checkpoints in the downtown federal building- and possibly be searched-just to check in with federal workers about her benefits.

"I'm worried about the security-I won't be able to understand them or ask questions," Lizhen explains to me through a Cantonese interpreter. Along with an estimated 72,000 recipients of federal benefits who will be transferred to the new office, she will be expected to pass through metal detectors, submit herself to pat-downs by Homeland Security officers and her belongings for X-rays, and present valid state or federal identification. Concerned local officials and advocates say the security precautions are over the top and will deter people from seeking their benefits. It's not that people like Lizhen are suspected terrorists or have criminal histories, but rather, critics say, that some people who are mentally ill, homeless, physically disabled, or don't speak English simply won't be willing to face the security forces.

"Many homeless people don't carry around valid ID and don't want to have their worldly belongings search by security guards," says Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/ King County Coalition on Homelessness.

Likewise, Alex Doolittle, executive director of the Seattle Community Law Center, says the obstacle of facing security officers is pronounced for people suffering from paranoia or anxiety. "If they have to endure people in uniform frisking them first, they're not going to seek services," Doolittle says. "They're at risk of not getting paid their correct benefits."

Nonetheless, federal officials insist the move is necessary to save money. Two local SSA field offices, one located in the International District and the other in Belltown, will be consolidated into the Jackson Federal Building on Second Avenue.

But concern is mounting as the June switchover approaches.

"I ask that you reconsider the move," wrote Mayor Mike McGinn in a November 22 letter to Stanley Friendship, the regional commissioner of the Social Security Administration, stating the move would put "already vulnerable populations at greater risk."

Community activists have repeatedly met with SSA officials-most recently on December 19-to implore them to change the location, but so far to no avail.

"The consolidation decision has been made and the space has been procured," writes regional SSA spokeswoman Eileen McSherry in an e-mail. McSherry says that contrary to community members' fears, the move won't "significantly affect" public access to services and people without ID will be escorted to their offices. Furthermore, she encourages people to navigate the federal websites or call their offices instead.

But her assurances are not enough. For people like Lizhen, a language barrier makes accessing benefits online or over the phone impossible. "I help people older than me get to the SSA offices because they become confused or scared easily," adds Lizhen. "If they move offices, I won't be able to go by myself, let alone help others. I feel helpless."

Community members are holding a public meeting on Friday, January 13, at 1:30 p.m. at the International District/Chinatown Community Center to organize people and pressure the administration into changing its mind-or at least the venue.

"They've admitted to us that 10 percent of Social Security recipients won't go [to the new location] but still they won't budge," laments Robby Stern, president of the Puget Sound Alliance for Retired Americans, which represents roughly 1,200 retirees in the Seattle Area. "That's flat-out wrong. Everyone pays into the Social Security system, and everyone should have access to it."

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