At 9 a.m., some 30 people filed into the Social Security Administration building on Valencia.
A line of 30 finally files into the Social Security Administration building at 9 a.m.

A view of the realities of city life from the line outside the Social Security Administration office at Valencia & 22nd Street.

The line stretching alongside the Social Security Administration building on Valencia at 22nd is a familiar sight on Mission District mornings. Those who are savvy come well before the administrative building’s 9 a.m. opening time, even if that means showing up less than an hour after sunrise.

Then they wait.

Ralph Talley, 51, was one of five people at the administrative building before 8 a.m. on Thursday. “I didn’t want to be the thirteenth or fourteenth person in line,” he said from his wheelchair by the steps.

Arriving at 7:35 a.m., Talley was only early enough to be in second in line. Seventy-six-year-old Conchita Tioaquen, resting on the steps with a cane she uses for her knee problem, beat him to first place by five minutes. “I took a taxi,” she said.

Like many, Tioaquen was waiting to get copies of forms she needs to complete her taxes. But other seniors and those with disabilities have more at stake. For them, the building holds answers to the unknowns that indeed determine their future security in a city where the cost of living continues to rise.

Proud to have just moved into his own place after bouncing from shelter to shelter for about a year, Ralph Talley said he was in line to ask for a couple hundred dollars from $1,400 he is owed in supplemental security income back payments.

“I need things right now,” he said, listing the things he lacked at his first apartment since being discharged from prison. Missing necessities included pots and pans to cook his food and detergent to do his laundry. “Even though [the money] is entitled to you, they like to hold it.”

San Franciscans line up at the Social Security Administration office on Valencia as early as 7:30 a.m., an hour and a half before opening.

Getting the money now would help Talley get his life together. With a bevy of health problems, that life is “a struggle every day,” he said. If the administration did not grant his request? “I’ll have to wait till June.”

Talley is one of around 45,000 low-income older, blind or otherwise disabled people in San Francisco County receiving supplemental security benefits totaling more than $28.6 million, according to Social Security Administration statistics from December 2013. An estimated 1,800 of those individuals live in the 94110 zip code, according to the 2009–2013 American Community Survey. They live outside the benefits of a boom – affected only by the rising costs or the squeeze in housing. No one has figured out an app to make lining up outside of the Social Security office unnecessary.

By 8:20 a.m. on Thursday, the line at 1098 Valencia was 17 people long and growing, with people arriving from all over the city. Numerous older folks brought friends or family for support to help figure out what retirement, disability, or medical benefits they could receive. The numbers could make a large difference in how well, and how long, they could live in San Francisco.

Standing behind Talley before 9 a.m. were a 78-year-old who had received calls about “fraudulent activity” using his social security number, a 66-year-old nanny with a form requesting an employer signature she said she could not obtain, and a 57-year-old man who was not the first person this week to say he had been recently robbed of his social security card.

Among those with mysteries to solve was Charles Hong, 79, who said $629.60 was missing from his supplemental security payment last month. This was his second visit to social security to find out why. He suspected it had something to do with Medicare benefits he had just begun receiving, but needed confirmation.

Several people were visiting the administration for the second or third time, after failing to be helped or seen on other busy days, with or without having made appointments. A 64-year-old Mission handyman, surviving on his wife’s disability while trying to figure out how to retire, was one of the people who walked away on Wednesday without answers because the wait of more than an hour was simply too long.

Younger people in the line tended to have simpler reasons to visit, including administrative mistakes: one was missing the letter “l” from the name “Jacquelyn” on an application for a social security number. Another was notified his birth date was recorded incorrectly. “I was filing my taxes,” he said. “It’s only the fortieth time I’ve done that.”

For seniors, navigating both their business and the line itself was more complicated, more frustrating, and more frequently vital.

“It’s ridiculous for us old people to stand in this line,” exclaimed a woman toward the back of the line reaching 30 people deep before 9 a.m. “It’s like lining up for a food line.”

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J.J. Barrow began reporting for Mission Local in 2010. She once rode the 49 Van Ness-Mission for six hours straight while the rest of the city tuned in to the World Series — until revelry ended the route. She misses hiding in Guerrero's quiet Cafe Petra (now defunct) to write.

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  1. Hi,
    Just wanted to add my recent experience at this Soc. Sec. office – I guess I lucked out! I am 57 years old & on permanent disability. I had to go to this office to get a copy of something. Once I walked in ( around 10:15 am ) there wasn’t a line, I picked my number……and about 5 minutes later I was called! I realize that’s probably a very rare experience and I feel for these seniors who have to wait a long time;

  2. I think this article over simplifies the situation and offers no answers. SSI/SSA/Medicare benefits have had lots of changes over the years, most services can be handled online or by phone. SSA offices have cut back on their hours of operations.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, John. Many who rely on SSA offices do not have Internet access, or tried calling previously. The office hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays, save Wednesday when the office closes at noon.

      1. The Internet can be found at the SF public libraries or senior service centers (with free training classes too)

      2. JJ, can you help me understand what you mean by “No one has figured out an app to make lining up outside of the Social Security office unnecessary”? Are you suggesting there should be an app?

  3. Not everybody has internet! and Social Security should hire more people They have all our monies. And how do they expect us to live on this chicken shit pay they give us in San francisco? Ohhh and even while your still working and paying ss don’t make over the amount allowed or they charge you .Even on minimum wage and SS I can’t afford to live in my hometown or die in it

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