Blog For The City

The Coming Crisis: Social Security Disability Trust Fund Insolvency

BFC SOAR Social Workers Ashley L and Ashley M

BFC SOAR Social Workers Ashley L and Ashley M

Darlene is a 60-year-old DC resident who came to Bread for the City to seek assistance applying for Social Security Disability Benefits through BFC’s SOAR program.*  With help from case workers in our Social Services department, Darlene applied for and received her benefits within a few months.

Social Security disability benefits have made a significant difference in Darlene’s life as she grows older – allowing her to pay rent and utilities in her apartment.  Darlene’s experience is not a rare case –  out of SSDI beneficiaries across the country, seven in ten are age 50 and older, and three in ten are 60 and older.  The average monthly payment of SSDI benefits (benefits based on work history) is $1,017.30, and for many recipients, disability benefits constitute their only income and they are already living close to or below the poverty line.

Recently,there has been political debate on how to handle the long term preservation of these funds.  Some advocates fear that proposed measures in Congress could result in decreased benefits for recipients.

We connected Darlene with Kate Lang of the National Senior Citizens Law Center and on February 11th, Darlene accompanied Ms. Lang as she testified before the U.S. Senate Budget Committee regarding the importance of preserving Social Security disability benefits.**  Ms. Lang shared that Darlene had worked for many years – her first job was with the Social Security Administration — but had to leave the workforce several years ago when she became ill.

At the hearing, Lang, along with the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations, urged Congress to act expeditiously to protect SSDI benefits by reallocating payroll taxes between Social Security’s retirement trust fund and the disability trust fund, to equalize the solvency of the two funds, and to do so without any cuts to Social Security coverage, eligibility or benefits. This would help those who, like Darlene, depend on these benefits to maintain their stability and quality of life.

Bread for the City applauds Lang and her colleagues at NSCLC and LCAO for fighting for solvency of the Social Security Disability Trust Fund. Without this trust fund, too many of our clients could end up homeless, hungry, or worse.

*BFC’s SOAR program helps clients like Darlene every day and is fully dependent upon community support to operate. Please lend your help today by making a tax-deductible contribution.

**Click here to read Kate Lang’s full Senate testimony “The Coming Crisis: Social Security Disability Trust Fund Insolvency.” For questions about NSCLC, please contact Vanessa Barrington at 510-256-1200 or


Civil Legal Assistance Saves Money and Helps People Escape Poverty

Bread for the City PIcnic
This is  a crosspost from Lonnie Powers, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. We found it on This post first appeared on

Sargent Shriver, President Johnson’s personal choice to lead the War on Poverty, was once asked which anti-poverty program he considered the most important.

“My favorite is Head Start because it was my idea,” he answered. “But I am proudest of Legal Services because I recognized that it had the greatest potential for changing the system under which people’s lives were being exploited.”

Legal services, also known as civil legal aid, has indeed been a potent anti-poverty tool in two ways. First, through individual case work that enables poor people to gain access to the rights and benefits from state and federal service agencies, health care providers, and schools to which they are entitled. Second, through large, class-action lawsuits and advocacy efforts that change laws and governmental policies that adversely ― and overwhelmingly ― affect poor people.

With the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty in 2014, we have been treated to numerous assessments of the effectiveness of Johnson’s (and Shriver’s) program these past 12 months. It is indisputable that tremendous progress has been made and that much work remains.

To continue progress, civil legal aid must be deployed more broadly in future efforts to combat poverty, and public resources for legal assistance must be increased greatly.

With regard to class action lawsuits, we have seen how civil legal aid has resulted in significant legal victories. In 1970, legal aid attorneys successfully argued before the US Supreme Court in Goldberg v. Kelly that state welfare departments cannot terminate benefits without first providing applicants with a fair hearing. In 1973, California Rural Legal Assistance successfully sued to stop large agricultural operators from requiring migrant farm workers to use short-handled hoes while working in fields. (The short-handled hoes forced workers to stay bent over for long periods of time; field managers required their use because if they saw workers standing up, then they knew that they were resting and not working. After these hoes were banned, back injuries among farm workers dropped by more than 30 percent.) More recently, a federal lawsuit by Greater Boston Legal Services resulted in changes in policy by the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance which had improperly denied benefits to people living with disabilities.

A look at how civil legal aid case work for individuals struggling with homelessness and/or unstable housing, as well as those who are victims of intimate partner violence, is also instructive.

Numerous programs around the country demonstrate that civil legal services can help poor people keep their housing, or negotiate exits from housing that prevent immediate evictions, and ensure a smooth transition to safe, affordable housing. A pilot program launched in 2009 by the Boston Bar Association showed conclusively that poor people fighting eviction notices in housing court in Quincy, Massachusetts, fared much better when they were represented by attorneys. Two-thirds of those with full representation kept their housing; only one-third of those who went through housing court without an attorney were able to do the same. Similar results have been found in New York City, San Francisco, and San Mateo County in California.

Meanwhile, a landmark 2003 study published in Contemporary Economic Policy showed that legal services is one of the most effective ways to help women living in poverty escape intimate partner violence. Amy Farmer and Jill Tiefenthaler, researchers at the Carnegie Mellon Census Research Data Center, were intrigued by a Department of Justice report noting that rates of domestic violence had significantly declined during the 1990s. They analyzed data from the National Crime Victimization Survey and the Census to tease out the reasons for the improvement. Their conclusion? Access to civil legal services ensured delivery of protective orders; assistance with child custody and support; and divorce and property distribution that victims needed to begin rebuilding their lives. Civil legal assistance was also critical for resolution of domestic violence-related legal disputes around immigration, housing, and public benefits.

While services provided by emergency shelters, counselors and hotlines are vital in the short-term, Farmer and Tiefenthaler wrote, services provided by civil legal aid “appear to actually present women with real, long-term alternatives to their relationships.” (It is also interesting to note that between 1994 and 2000, the period during which incidents of domestic violence declined, the availability of civil legal services for victims of domestic violence increased 245 percent — from 336 such programs to 1,441).

Despite these clear successes, many people do not understand what civil legal aid is, and surveys regularly find that most Americans erroneously believe that poor people have a right to free counsel in civil cases. Meanwhile, state and federal funding for legal assistance is well below what it needs to be.

This fall, the Boston Bar Association’s Statewide Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Aid in Massachusetts released Investing in Justice, a report showing that more than 60 percent of those who are eligible for civil legal aid in Massachusetts and seek services are turned away due to lack of resources. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the task force.) The Task Force proposed that the Commonwealth’s investment in civil legal aid be increased by $30 million over the next three years to begin to address the unmet need. Currently, the state invests $15 million annually in civil legal aid.

The irony, of course, is that the civil legal aid yields a measurable ― and significant ― return on investment. Looking at work solely related to housing, public benefits and domestic violence, three independent economic consulting firms which did analyses for the Task Force found that every dollar spent on civil legal aid in eviction and foreclosure cases saved the state $2.69 on services associated with housing needs such as “emergency shelter, health care, foster care, and law enforcement.” Every dollar spent assisting qualified people to receive federal benefits brings in $5 to the state. Every dollar spent on civil legal aid related to domestic violence is offset by a dollar in medical costs averted due to fewer incidents of assault.

This summer, Philadelphia resident Tianna Gaines-Turner became the first person actually living in poverty to testify before Congressman Paul Ryan’s congressional hearings on the War on Poverty. In her strong and moving testimony she spoke of the need for increased state and federal funding to end poverty, saying, “People living in poverty ― those who were born into it, and those who are down on their luck ― want to get out of poverty. We want to create our own safety nets, so we never have to depend on government assistance again.”

Civil legal aid is a powerful tool. It helps people living in poverty build a foundation of stability so they can create a better future for themselves, their families, and our communities.


You can learn more about the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation on their website:

Bread for the City’s Legal Clinic is funded, in part, through private and public dollars awarded by the DC Bar Foundation. You too can support civil legal services for DC residents in need here.

Let’s Get Ready to Garden!

It may be too cold to garden but it’s not too cold to dream. Let’s get started on the next growing season at Bread!

Garden Open Hours Are Back!Grow for the City logo no edge
Garden open hours are BACK at the Northwest and Southeast Centers. Ask for me, Zachari, at the front desk and together we’ll look through seed catalogs, read books, and plan what the garden will look like.

Pre-season Garden Open Hours at Northwest Center
Tuesdays, 10am-1pm
1525 7th St, NW

Pre-season Garden Open Hours at Southeast Center
Thursdays, 10am-1pm
1640 Good Hope Road, SE

Gifts can also be made to the garden that will help us purchase seeds, dirt, and other garden goodness. Donate here!


Event: Rooting DC. February 28th. Wilson High School. 
Want to learn more about gardening? Cooking? Want to share your skills? Register for Rooting DC! It’s FREE and there will be lots of workshops, seeds, and great people!

Bread for the City Clients who need tokens to make it there can get them from me on Tuesdays (NW) and Thursdays (SE). Click here to register.

Have general questions about Bread for the City’s rooftop gardens and our sustainable agriculture projects? Email me at You can also support these efforts through your giving to our rooftop gardens or City Orchard. We appreciate all your help!


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Gateway or Gatekeeper? Social Services Agencies & the Referral System

The human service world is full of gatekeepers – individuals or organizations that control access to resources. Gatekeepers manifest in countless ways: they can look like staff who determine eligibility criteria, place people on wait lists, or restrict days and hours that someone can access services.

We recognize that some of this is unavoidable and at times important. We are all working with limited resources that make structure and guidelines necessary. However, for individuals using services, the gates can feel restrictive, endless, and oppressive. We have been thinking about the role that social service providers inadvertently play in perpetuating these systems of oppression. We think that folks accessing services deserve better. We think that as providers, we have a responsibility to do better.

Admit OneThe social services department at Bread for the City has begun to explore and wrestle with which of these gates can be opened and turned into gateways – entry points to access resources. How can we move toward a more humane, compassionate, and just service delivery model that will value program participants’ time and energy? We believe the starting place is to assume that individuals and families know what they need. Our resources will be better used to support increased independence, well-being and cooperation within the community if we create a system that places client interests at the center.

Currently in the social services world many agencies rely upon a ‘referral system’ in order to screen for eligibility and control demand for services. In this context, a ‘referral’ means a written letter or form that a staff person from an agency/organization completes for a client to be able to access goods like food, clothing, furniture, or computers from another agency/organization. These requirements are not uniform across DC non-profits. Every agency has different requirements for what kinds of referrals they will accept, the information they must contain, how long they are valid for and who can complete and sign them. The graphic below summarizes the current referral system. referral systemThe current referral system places a burden on clients both financially and emotionally. Clients incur the costs of transportation to two agencies along with the cost of time away from work and/or childcare. Additionally, the service delivery system is so often dehumanizing and it’s hard to have to ask for help. Folks are struggling to feed their family and then have to go two places to get one piece of the help they need. Not to mention the stress and hassle factor of negotiating multiple complex and inefficient systems. Last week, we heard from clients in the community impacted by this system during an open meeting. We estimated that with the cost of transportation ($2-$5 on bus, much more on metro!) and at least 2 hours off work for travel and wait time ($8.25 DC minimum wage) – getting a referral could cost someone nearly $20! Also, remember that this isn’t a one-time thing – that agencies that require referrals are asking clients to do these steps over and over again each time they need the specific good (clothing, food, computer, financial assistance with IDs).

We envision a better system that puts the client at the center and believes the client is, in fact, the best expert of their own need and capacity. This system would eliminate the need for a 3rd party written referral by encouraging providers to create internal intake processes that reflect their eligibility requirements. We know this model can work – at Bread for the City we do not require these third-party written referrals for our general services (food, clothing, legal, medical, social services). Instead we have an internally designed and run intake system to screen for our eligibility requirements like DC residency, income and family size. Intake also helps us to track the information we need to monitor and improve our services. We believe that this works better for both the client community that we serve and for our staff. please come in

We have begun to hold open meetings with clients interested in being involved in this advocacy effort. If you are interested in joining us to work for a better way please feel free to contact Kathleen Stephan at

Understanding Black History as One Step on the Road to Racial Justice

Guest Post by Tamara Copeland, President, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

Guest bloggerYears ago, my neighbor Jim Myers wrote a book called Afraid of the Dark: What Whites and Blacks Need to Know about Each Other. In it, Jim, who is white, suggests that one of the reasons that African-Americans and whites don’t understand each other is because we spend so little time in each other’s homes. He uses routine visiting as just one proxy for familiarity and understanding of cultures, lives, values, etc. I have another proxy: history.

Throughout most of my school years, I learned about white scientists, explorers, military strategists, poets, authors, politicians … you get my point. I learned about white people who were leaders in multiple sectors. The messages were regular and routine, not overt in suggesting a superiority, but simply facts incorporated into my everyday education. Because I had attended a segregated school through the fifth grade, I also had a solid grounding in black history. The black teachers, school administrators and my overall segregated community made sure that I knew that W.E.B. DuBois led the Niagara Movement that was the precursor to the NAACP, and that I knew about the Buffalo Soldiers and the Harlem Renaissance. The names and work of Charles Drew and Paul Robeson were familiar to me.

I believe that white America, particularly in communities that have little, if any, diversity of population get a very skewed view of African-Americans. Some suggest that the media has far more negative images of black America and black Americans than positive ones. And when that media imagery is not balanced by any knowledge of the multiple contributions of African-Americans to this country, some are left with a one-sided view. Without any counterbalance, African-Americans become viewed as drains on society, not contributors. Some might think that the election of an African-American president would balance that skewed portrayal. In fact, that one reality, albeit a milestone of major significance, isn’t enough to change the larger societal perceptions.

As school children across our country learn this month about the history of African-Americans, I celebrate the vision of Carter G. Woodson as the leader who recognized the importance of Negro History Week. The week that has now grown into a month is important. This is a time of overt acknowledgement of contributions, but I believe that these acknowledgements should be both separately celebrated and more subtly mainstream.

I urge all who care about racial justice and equity to consider what seems to be an area of only minimal focus: let’s look at what is in textbooks, let’s look at curriculum for all subjects, let’s fully examine what we are teaching our children about who has contributed to the greatness of this country.

BFC Supports the Language Access Amendment of 2015

language access coalition

For years, the Language Access Coalition, on which I serve as Bread for the City’s representative, has been talking about amending the Language Access Act to give it more “teeth.” Under the current law, a person who has been denied language access can file a complaint with the DC Office of Human Rights (OHR). The problem is that even if OHR determines that the government agency violated the Act, OHR has no power to force the agency to make changes or to compensate the complainant. As a result, we’ve seen agencies violate the Act over and over again with no sign of changing.

As we’ve spoken about on our blog before, language access means that DC government agencies must provide meaningful access to services for limited and non-English speaking customers. This includes oral interpretation and written translation of vital documents.

Today, Councilmember David Grosso introduced a bill to amend the Language Access Act. The highlights of this bill that the Language Access Coalition and Bread for the City wholeheartedly support are:

1) Provides a private right of action for aggrieved people to sue a DC government agency in DC Superior Court if the Act is violated (like with other discrimination claims under the Human Rights Act), which can provide a complainant with injunctive relief and compensatory damages (money),

2) Gives OHR the power to fine government agencies that are found to have violated the Act, with the money going into a fund to support language access, and provides a right to appeal an OHR determination to the Office of Administrative Hearings,

3) Provides additional language resources in DC public and charter schools, such as increasing the number of language access coordinators in schools and providing comprehensive trainings for teachers and counselors, and

4) Explicitly adds the DC Council and the Executive Office of the Mayor to the list of covered entities that must provide language access.

Why is this important? Within the past year or so, I filed language access complaints on behalf of four clients against the Department of Human Services (DHS), and OHR foundlanguage access that the agency violated the Act in each of these cases. Yet, the agency continues to deny language access to DC residents.

For example, one of my clients, Ms. Fernandez (name changed to protect her identity), returned to DHS to recertify for food stamps while awaiting a decision on her initial complaint, and she showed the DHS worker a Spanish “I Speak” card, which was given to her by the OHR investigator to help articulate her language needs. Nonetheless, the worker refused to provide Spanish interpretation, and Ms. Fernandez’s food stamps were unnecessarily terminated again.

This failure to comply with the law must stop immediately. Bread for the City applauds Councilmember Grosso’s proposal of this amendment, and asks that the DC Council give it their unanimous support.

*Allison’s work is funded, in part, by the DC Bar Foundation /DC Legal Services Grant Program – Private Grants.

Day of Service in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bread for the City hosted 60 volunteers on Monday’s Day of Service in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We welcomed volunteers from Blank Rome, Skadden Arps and Wiley Rein, as well as other community members at our centers in NW and SE, DC.

Living up to the purpose of the day, the volunteers worked hard to sort and process three pallets of fresh produce, including onions, potatoes, and carrots, into family-sized servings that Bread will distribute to clients through our two food pantries this week.

Volunteers also made a significant contribution in our clothing program by helping to organize the shopping area and storage room (a much needed task after the holiday season!) and to sort many bags of donations to ensure the program is well-stocked with seasonal items for these cold winter months.

At Bread for the City, volunteers play a very real and important role in helping us to accomplish our mission. We thank those who served on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and all of our other volunteers for all they contribute!

MLK Day volunteersMLK Day volunteers 2 MLK Day volunteers 3MLK Day volunteers 1






















Holistic Care for our Clients

Here at Bread for the City we describe ourselves as providing holistic care. This means comprehensive wrap-around services that help individuals achieve and maintain stability across many areas of their lives.

YogaHaving difficulty figuring out how to apply for food stamps? Stop by Social Services – we’ll go over the application with you and make sure your family gets groceries from our food pantry & garden. Need legal help to apply for child support? Legal intakes are every Monday afternoon. Want a medical home where you can care for your physical and mental health? Become a patient with our medical clinic and go to a free yoga class while you’re here!

We are serious about working to meet the complex needs of the community. We are invested in helping to create an environment that lets clients know they are respected and have the right to dignity – both inside and outside of our buildings’ walls. How though, do you ensure that someone feels dignified when they’re trapped in a system that often strips them of their humanity? There is little respect in being turned away from emergency shelter again because all available spaces are at capacity, or in having your EBT (food stamps) card be empty when the Department of Human Services (DHS) terminates your benefits without proper notice.Heather

Looking from the outside in, it can be difficult to understand the way that poverty keeps people from moving forward. As a caseworker I hear stories every day that demonstrate just how difficult and oppressive it is to be poor in Washington, DC. The circumstances that trap folks at the bottom of the class pyramid are complex, interwoven, and often completely outside of any one individual’s control. There are many studies (including this one) that show the high price of being poor. It can be hard though, to translate numbers to personal experience – so I’d like to introduce you to a few of the people that I have met and their stories.

Thomas is the single parent and primary guardian of a severely disabled child. Thomas wanted to stay in DC where he would be close to family that could provide childcare and emotional support – but his income made it impossible to find affordable housing. We’ve highlighted before that market rate rent is largely outside the affordable range for our clients. Our Housing Access Program helps people like Thomas, get on long term wait-lists for subsidized housing programs-and since starting in 2010, over 50 people they assisted in the process have obtained housing in affordable units. However, as these wait-lists all take many, many years, it is not an immediate solution and Thomas had to turn to already overcrowded family for support.

Through our Short-Term Case Management program, I was able to help Thomas identify the public benefits he could apply for, as well as aide him with the DC Public School enrollment process for his child. Even with our assistance, Thomas ran into several snags along the way – for example, it took us weeks to secure all necessary application proofs for DHS – and for that entire time their family was without any income or medical insurance coverage.

Many of our clients take regular medication that allows them to maintain their health stability – and without access to affordable health care they can fall into a crisis. Our medical clinic provides free care to anyone in need – and for Thomas they were able to provide an important bridge while he was without insurance.

Mary is in her 80s and lives in an apartment by herself. She doesn’t have many family members nearby and came into our legal clinic when she got a mailed notice she didn’t understand. The legal team quickly realized that Mary was not receiving all of the public benefits she was entitled to and linked her with me for help completing an application for the Qualified Medicare Beneficiary (QMB) program. This is a supplemental program available to low income Medicare beneficiaries in the District to cover their monthly Medicare premiums and co-pays.

Donald at AMCQMB requires applicants to provide various documents to prove eligibility and access benefits. Like many older people, Mary’s monthly income comes from a few different places – Social Security, pensions, veteran’s benefits, etc. As a result, it can be difficult to get all the proofs you need to show that you qualify. We spent a lot of time helping Mary track down her income statements so she could apply for QMB. We were happy to help Mary and she was glad to have the support – but not everyone has someone to help them navigate these complex scenarios. That’s why the comprehensive care that Bread for the City provides to the under-served residents of DC is so important. That’s also why it is important that our donors continue to support our efforts. One client at a time, we change lives for the better.


Bread for the City PIcnic



Bread’s Fall Festival

The folks in the Participatory Action Research Project thought it would be a great idea to survey our clients to find out what changes they wanted to see at Bread for the City’s SE and NW centers.

Out of that came a Fall Festival, which was designed to showcase the programs that were started as a result of the client surveys. Computer classes, crochet classes, a wellness space, the expansion of the SE center, and several other areas were showcased during the festival.

Fall festivalThere was free food, jewelry making, bingo, and lots of games for the children. It turned out to be a wonderful event for the community!

Catch a glimpse of the action here! Fall festival 2

Race Matters

A couple of weeks ago, a number of the Bread for the City staffers met up at Freedom Plaza to participate in the rally to end police brutality against black men. After some thought, I gave the staff permission to join the rally under the Bread for the City banner, rather than insisting that they participate as mere private citizens.

I had initially hesitated to give my permission for them to walk as Bread employees, not because I didn’t like the cause or because I was worried about alienating some donors, which it very well might. No, I hesitated because I fear that the idea of marching regarding police brutality is too narrow of a message. Even one life of an unarmed citizen lost at the hands of the very people paid to protect us is tragic, but of course we know these tragedies have been both numerous and irreversible.

Protest photoI also believe they are really just horrific symptoms of the systemically brutal socio-economic oppression experienced by people of color in Ferguson, New York City, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and yes even in the former chocolate city, Washington, DC.

I know we Americans don’t like talking about race. It is uncomfortable territory. As a black man, I know all too well that it’s dangerous. As we’ve seen with racial profiling of people like Forest Whitaker, there is an undeniable racial bias, often implicit, that doesn’t care if you’re successful or “respectable.” With all the privileges of being the CEO of a major non-profit, I have felt the sting of the kind of implicit bias that could lead a woman walking on the same block with me at night, a person seeing me driving through the predominantly white neighborhood I live in, or even a police officer sworn to protect my rights as a citizen, to perceive me as a threat.

But again, I believe that the greater cost of this racial bias, or what many would call this kind of racism, is that it is also at play in all of the systems in our racialized communities, states and country.

The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, have created an opportunity for America to talk about how race continues to be the determining factor not only who lives or dies when confronted by police on the streets, but just as often who is hired or fired, who is poor or not, who is sentenced to prison or not, can afford to live in gentrifying cities like DC or not, and even which 1st grader is going to be suspended or not. The brutal truth behind just about every socio-economic indicator is that people of color fare far worse than white people.

rally against police brutality 4Racism is built in to the fabric of our lives. It limits our options and shapes our choices. The white men who built the institutions and policies that our country was founded on designed them in a way that would benefit them – not always intentionally but sometimes explicitly.

Here at Bread, we know that we’re an institution shaped by the legacy of racism. We also believe that we can intentionally embody racial equity — whether that’s providing culturally-relevant services to everyone that walks through our door, being a good employer to our diverse staff, or advocating for policies to dismantle racist systems.

I hope that by adding my voice to this vital national conversation, we can continue to move the needle on racial equity when it comes to policing, as well as all of the other systems affecting the lives of black folks. I know that now that I’ve started to share my story, I don’t plan to stop until race isn’t a determining factor for health, educational attainment, or career.

Will you join me?

At the Service to Justice Conference on January 30-31st, Bread for the City staff, clients and funders, will lead a discussion on the importance of anti-racist organizing at non-profit organizations. We would love to have our donors and volunteers, skeptics and supporters in the audience. Register here. I hope to see you there.