The SOAR (SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access and Recovery) program at Health Care for the Homeless accelerates the federal disability benefits process for people experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness and have a severe behavioral illness. Over the years, our SOAR team has been hard at work, assisting hundreds of people apply for and receive disability assistance. With their 500 case just completed, it’s a good time to lift the veil on some of that impressive work…
Meet the SOAR team
First off, meet our SOAR team!
- Bilqis Rock, Baltimore City SOAR Lead
- Gerardo Benavides, SOAR Specialist
- Jill Eicher, Behavioral Health Therapist and SOAR Specialist
- Emily Gordon, SOAR Specialist
- Lauren Waldt, SOAR Specialist
History of SOAR
SOAR has been years in the making. Decades ago, SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) and SSI (Supplemental Security Income) were created for individuals with disabilities as a stopgap for lost wages they would have otherwise earned if they were able to work. But for many, the benefit hasn’t worked quite as imagined. Unraveling disability benefits is hard in and of itself, especially for people experiencing severe behavioral health issues and homelessness. Then there’s the fact that those most in need of these benefits have the least access to them.
So in the 1990s, a pilot program was launched to help individuals with behavioral health challenges secure the assistance and resources they need to thrive. Now, SOAR is in all 50 states, with an agency that acts as the main hub for SOAR services in major jurisdictions. Since 2009, Health Care for the Homeless has been Baltimore City’s agency, assisting not only Health Care for the Homeless clients, but also training hundreds of behavioral health and homeless services providers and taking on dozens of referrals a year from outside providers at local shelters, prisons and hospitals.
How the program works
Our SOAR team works with medical and behavioral health providers to assess a candidate’s needs. If the client has a severe behavioral illness and is experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness, the team fast tracks his or her SSI and SSDI application for disability benefits. Once the medical assessment and benefit documentation are done, the application process begins. The SOAR team member acts as the client’s representative throughout the process and within a few months, the benefit decision happens. And more times than not, the client receives SSI or SSDI funding.
For the majority of our clients, this is their first steady source of income and begins their path toward stability. Without the SOAR program, it wouldn’t have been possible. “Working with SOAR was very helpful,” said Sarah*. “Some of the things [they] told me to do, I didn’t even know those places existed. Without [their] help, I’d be in the same predicament I was in before. [They] showed me the right direction to go.”
How are we’re doing, overall
The short answer: pretty well. 90% of initial SOAR claims in Baltimore are approved in an average of 60 days. Compare that to the national approval rate of 20% to 30%. And for those that are approved, the benefits are changing their lives and helping them get back on their feet after years of homelessness.
An interview the SOAR team conducted in 2015 with 32 former clients sheds light on the role SOAR has played in their lives. What we learned was that disability benefits were a life-changing event for our clients and greatly improved health, housing and quality of life outcomes. Every client surveyed was enrolled in treatment or social services to improve their health and most reported that the health insurance coverage accompanying disability benefits made it easier for them to secure the health care they needed.
When it comes to housing, the numbers are even more remarkable. Before receiving benefits, only 9% of clients lived on their own. After receiving benefits, that number jumped to 72%. “For how important income is to housing, SOAR is one of the most tangible ways Health Care for the Homeless is preventing and ending homelessness,” says Margaret Flanagan, Director of Public Grants and former SOAR coordinator.
One of our clients surveyed said, SOAR “helped me, number one, it allowed me to survive. And number two, I continued getting services and doing everything in my ability to get better. In the last six months, I’ve made great strides. Counseling has been really great.”
Check out the results here.
A Glance at our SOAR Housing Program
Additionally, in 2015 we began a supportive housing program for individuals who have been approved for disability benefits through the SOAR process, who are exiting a state hospital or who are leaving a residential rehabilitation program. The program started in 2015 at the initiative of Health Care for the Homeless, and has resulted in 36 housing vouchers.
Thanks to SOAR, our clients with severe behavioral health illnesses are finding an entry point back into a steady and secure life. With a reliable source of income, new opportunities around health care and housing are possible. Now, the sky’s the limit!
*This isn’t the client’s real name.