Recently, Disability Alabama successfully represented a homeless Social Security claimant. Based on the claimant’s ailments, diagnoses, and personal history they were able to get approved after a hearing. However, there are particular barriers to Social Security claims by those experiencing homelessness.
Homelessness Does not Disqualify You for Disability.
Being homeless does not disqualify you or a family member from qualifying for disability benefits. However, it may present challenges in proving your case. This is especially true if homelessness makes it difficult for you to (1) receive and respond to mail; (2) seek and receive regular treatment for your conditions.
The Importance of Mail.
Social Security communicates mostly by mail. If you have a lawyer or other appointed representative, a copy of correspondence from Social Security will usually - but not always - wind up at your attorney’s office. To the extent possible, homeless claimants should maintain a mailing address where they can periodically collect mail. Sometimes that’s a family member’s address, sometimes that’s a church or other non-profit.
Letters from Social Security usually request some kind of response within a limited time frame. So, homeless claimants should try to check their mail once a week.
Inability to Get Treatment.
The inability to get treatment can hurt your health, and make it harder to get approved for disability. If you can get health care do your best to make it to any scheduled appointments. If for some reason you can’t make it - be sure to call and explain why. Often doctors’ offices will write down the reason for a missed appointment.
If you can’t affor treatment or co-pays for docotor visits and medication, be sure to tell the judge. Similarly, if you missed or were late for appointments because of transportation issues, be sure to talk about that at your hearing. While an ALJ can’t hold a failure to get treatment against you if you can’t afford it or have other economic barriers - they can’t excuse a lack of treatment if they don’t know why you struggle to get treatment.
At the Hearing.
Like many hearings, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in this case wanted to know about medical treatment, hospitalizations, medications and the like. However, more time than usual was spent discussing the claimant’s extremely sparse work history. More important were the questions the ALJ did not ask - especially those dealing with the practical barriers of homelessness.
When the lawyer had a chance to ask questions, they tried to fill the gap with testimony about the barriers of homelessness. In this case, those included: lack of consistent access to a mailing address; lack of phone access; poor transportation options; revolving living situations; and lack of access to showers.
Questions for a Vocational Expert.
In every Social Security hearing, there is a vocational expert who gives opinion testimony about what jobs you might or might not be able to do. What questions the ALJ and your lawyer ask this witness can have a huge impact on your case. In the case of someone experiencing homelessness issues, there can be a lot of uncommon barriers to substantial gainful employment.
Your lawyer may want to ask the vocation expert questions related to the following:
- How would an inability to bathe or shower regularly before work affect a claimant’s employability?
- How would the lack of a regular mailing address affect a claimant’s employability?
- How would lack of access to a phone affect a claimant’s employability?
- How would a lack of reliable transportation affect a claimant’s employability?
Some or all of these questions will not apply to every homeless claimant. However, for those experiencing long-term homelessness, they might all apply.
Where to learn more:
- Use Disability Alabama’s disability calculator for an estimate of your benefit. While you do not need any special information to complete the calculation you may want to take a moment to think about your average yearly income and current household income before using the disability calculator; and
- Contact Disability Alabama for help with your Social Security Disability application or appeal.