A view of the realities of city life from the line outside the Social Security Administration office at Valencia and 22nd Street. You can read the first part of this series here.
Last Tuesday before 9 a.m., Barbara Glaspie waited outside the Social Security Administration on Valencia Street for the third time. She had tried calling the administration on the phone, but was deterred by its recorded message. “They say, ‘We serve 50 million people,’ ” she said. “You serve 50 million? I’m never going to talk with someone!”
Glaspie is one of more than 17,000 working-age adults in San Francisco County relying on disability, known as supplemental security income or SSI, to make ends meet. Like others, she is wrangling with the back pay she is owed after waiting more than two and a half years for her benefits to be approved.
About 1,800 Mission residents receive supplement security payments for old age or disability, according to the most recent American Community Surveys.
Glaspie’s benefits would cover her rent, if her payment would only arrive.
She arranged for her payment to post to her account in time for this month’s rent. When the money failed to arrive, Glaspie reached out to social security to find out what happened. She said they found no record of her arrangement.
Now, Glaspie’s rent is late, and she is avoiding her landlord. “I’m scared,” she said. “I’m hoping I don’t get thrown out.”
For those who do receive their payments, short-term security staves off long-term uncertainty — leaving the question of whether they will be able to spend the rest of their lives in the city they call home.
Alex Johnson, 54, a veteran surviving on supplemental security in the Mission, spent much of a recent Wednesday morning on the sidewalk by the Social Security building on 22nd Street. He was there as moral support for his girlfriend, Bernadette Youngbear, who said she was in chemotherapy. Both could only guess how much longer they would be able to afford to live in the city on their benefits.
“My building is going to be sold, maybe in two years,” Johnson speculated while standing next to the mailboxes, waiting for Youngbear. When that happens, he guessed, he will have to leave the city. “It can be a city that’s all poor, or all rich.”
Seeing her family pack up for Hayward and Antioch after 70 years in the city, Youngbear, 53, expected she would have the same fate. “After they pay all their bills, they have $20 left,” she said. “I’m going to have to move, too. I’ve watched it all — the majority of all my friends have moved out. Their apartments went from $550 to $1,100.”
In 2013, the average disability payment in the state of California was just under $700 a month. The mean supplemental security income in San Francisco County was $9,767 annually, or $814 a month.
Another San Franciscan on disability, 51-year-old Ralph Talley, recently scored a space in a special recovery program near Candlestick Park where his rent is $500. Still, if his supplemental security back pay did not arrive soon, he said he would need a loan from his brother to cover his expenses. His recent Thursday morning trip to the Social Security Administration appeared to be fruitful. Talley was told the $200 advance he requested from his back pay would be on his card the next Friday.
His arrangement was similar to the one Barbara Glaspie — who has some support from her sister — thought she had.
Glaspie is 48 years old. “I know — too young not to be working,” she remarked before filing past security at 8:56 a.m., amongst several 60-somethings who were applying for retirement. Suffering from lupus and in the throes of grief since the July 2012 murder of her 26-year-old son in Visitacion Valley, Glaspie imagines she may work again someday. But not yet, she said.
“I’m still trying to cope,” she said, wearing a memorial T-shirt. “There are days I can’t move. There are days I can’t talk.”
Dealing with the social security administration has compounded her pain. After waiting about three years to be approved for disability, she is finding it difficult to stomach the impersonal, bureaucratic tone of agency employees. “A lot of people are coming here for money we’ve worked hard for, but it feels more like welfare,” she said. “I feel like I have to beg for it.”
Glaspie said she does not want an apology for the administrative errors that delayed her rent and hurt her pride. “I just want somebody to help me fix it.” However, “it would help if they had better rapport with people here,” she said. “Not like the humane society.”