“Social Security can come across as very intimidating, as this big giant no one wants to deal with,” Goode said.
Goode deals with the Social Security giant. She doesn’t slay him. She wins him over by working with her clients to study their cases, gather their documents and compile an airtight case.
Not all of the women served by N Street Village are eligible for benefits. Some think they are but aren’t. Some are but have never gotten them. Goode is what’s known as SOAR-certified, which stands for SSI/SSDI, Outreach, Access and Recovery. That means she’s been trained on how to interact with Social Security, whose offices she visits every week.
Goode works in N Street Village’s MARJ and MAK Vocational Center, where she holds regular benefits workshops and maintains spreadsheets on each client’s Social Security journey.
Some of the work is straightforward: helping a client replace a lost Social Security card, an important document when applying for a job or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Other clients have more complex needs, requiring death certificates and doctor’s letters.
Medical records are important when applying for disability benefits. Those benefits can be for physical injuries, but Social Security recognizes mental illness, too, if it keeps an applicant from being able to work.
The irony is, there are women who would doubtless qualify for disability benefits because they are schizophrenic, bipolar or experience another recognized form of mental illness, Goode said. But the women themselves haven’t accepted this and do not pursue benefits.
While Goode works with Social Security, her colleague Matthew LaBorde, the vocational center coordinator, helps them gain employment skills — and employment.
N Street Village has always done a good job of helping women find housing and medical care. It also offers a continuing slate of activities — including meditation and flower-arranging — to create a sense of community.
“The employment and income piece were a gap in service,” LaBorde said. Not any more.
He fills that gap by surveying the vocational training landscape. N Street Village doesn’t itself do training. Instead, it matches its clients with groups that do.
“A big part of my job is to be aware of all the referral agencies and partner agencies,” he said.
LaBorde knows when the next culinary education class is starting at the D.C. Central Kitchen. He knows the YWCA has great training programs in health care and administrative fields. He knows which employers are hiring. A computer lab is open four days a week so clients can work on their résumés and apply for jobs.
Money is important to people who have so little of it. So the center provides financial counseling, too. They help clients fix errors in their credit reports. They stress the importance of having a bank account and not relying on an endless succession of debit cards, as many poor people do.
When Goode is able to help an N Street Village client secure her benefits, the numbers are not huge. The most money any successful applicant would receive under Social Security’s needs-based Supplemental Security Income program is $771 a month. But to a person living below the poverty line, that money is vitally important.
Goode and LaBorde know there are some who think benefit recipients are a drain on the system.
On the contrary, they say. That’s exactly how the system is meant to work.
“The virtue of them getting that disability benefit means that they went through a long and arduous process that was vetted by a government agency, verified by doctors and supported by the testimony,” LaBorde said. “Don’t blame the person for tapping into a government resource.”
Said Goode: “You don’t know their stories. They’re just as entitled to it as anyone else.”
You can help
At the MARJ and MAK Vocational Center, Goode and LaBorde sometimes joke that she’s MARJ and he’s MAK. Or is it the other way around?
In fact, the center is named in honor of Marjorie Ellis Van Scoyoc (MARJ) and Mary Alice Kirton (MAK), the mothers of Pat and Stu Van Scoyoc. Both women were committed to education and improving women’s lives. The Van Scoyocs donated to establish the center in their mothers’ names, with the help of the Comcast Foundation and other funders.
N Street Village is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand. You can support the work it does by visiting PostHelpingHand.com and clicking “Donate.” To donate by mail, make a check payable to “N Street Village” and send it to N Street Village, Attn: Helping Hand, 1333 N St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20005.