The cruelest cuts

Pub date January 18, 2011

By Hannah Deveraux

OPINION Sitting alone in my apartment off Turk and Mason streets in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, I try not to let myself slip back into depression or anxiety over my finances. My apartment is small, an adjective that makes it sound bigger than it really is. Still, it’s mine. I am able to pay rent through my Supplemental Security Income (SSI) check, and when my disability claim was first approved, I was relieved.

It had been a nearly two-year uphill battle with the Social Security Administration, and even after my benefits were approved, I still spent an additional three months living out of various shelters while I waited on several housing lists. But then the call came from my social worker at the shelter that I had been placed in a hotel in the Tenderloin, and I was excited to be out of shelters once and for all.

I am not someone who is easily given over to making hyperbolic statements, so I cannot say that I was ever happy to have to be living off SSI. Nevertheless, I was happy to have a roof over my head rather than a rain-soaked cardboard box, and I was thankful to have Medi-Cal. After all, San Francisco is just about the only place where transgender woman like myself can get affordable or free healthcare and be treated with dignity from our providers.

Little did I realize that being treated with dignity by our government was no longer in the cards.

It began when many of my friends, also on SSI or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), started complaining about reductions to their checks. Our benefits were cut — but the Social Security Administration wasn’t telling us what had happened. Some checks were cut by as little as $20, some $60, and others as much as $150.

My check was unaffected for a few months, and then the cuts started to hit me as well. I have now seen six separate reductions to my monthly check, which was $964, and is now only $845. Because of the cuts, I no longer have enough to meet all of my basic needs each month. Many days, dinner is a loaf of warmed up garlic bread because it’s all I can afford.

But things got much worse. The government did the most inhumane thing imaginable: it took away vision and dental benefits from our Medi-Cal. Suddenly, three epiphanies about politics dawned on me: the first that the poor are sound bites for politicians; it always looks good for politicians to get their picture in the local newspaper with their arm around a smiling 60-something homeless guy. Second, the poor will always be the first minority group to have their funding for social service programs, essential food services, and low-cost or free medical care targeted in a bad economy.

The last thing I realized is that politicians don’t care if the poor die — as long as they die silently and the politicians don’t get blamed for it.

These days I wonder if I’ll even be able to keep my housing, and I often have anxiety attacks where my heart races and I cry to myself, just out of sheer stress and worry.

The fact is, I shouldn’t have to live this way. I have to wonder how amounts so small in proportion to California’s $25 billion deficit are even going to come close to making a difference.

It’s unconscionable that the first thought of our government would be to steal from those who are already disabled and poor and barely getting by, those who really don’t know how to advocate for themselves, and who have few allies to begin with. *

Hannah Deveraux has a roof over her head — for now.