Student loan relief for SSI/SSDI beneficiaries

In an exciting new development, the Department of Education changed the policy on discharging student loans. This change could help thousands of people with disabilities. Bread for the City’s attorneys are hoping that with this change in the law we can help our clients get out from under the weight of student loan debt.

Under the new regulation, some SSI/SSDI recipients are now eligible to have their federal student loans fully discharged. Once a person is found to be “disabled” by the Social Security Administration (SSA), SSA decides how often they will review the person’s case based on the severity of their disability. This “continuing disability review” (CDR) schedule can be anywhere from 1 to 7+ years. The change allows SSI/SSDI recipients who have been set on a CDR schedule greater than 5 years to have their federal student loans entirely discharged.  Applicants only need to submit a short one-page application and a print-out from SSA showing proof of the CDR schedule.

Taylor Healy and Alexis MaguinaAlready, we have helped three people apply for loan discharge and two have already been approved! These clients are all SSDI beneficiaries who were having 15% of their monthly check garnished by the Department of Education – a huge hardship for anyone, let alone someone on a fixed income who is unable to work.

The loan discharge was a huge relief for someone like Sandra*, who worked in law enforcement for many years before deciding to go back to college to study criminal justice. After graduating from Marymount University, Sandra was diagnosed with breast cancer, unable to work, and owed over $34,000 in federal student loans. She fell into a deep depression, was evicted from her apartment and spent three months living in a public park before getting assistance from a case worker. Two years ago, she started taking medication for her depression and was able to get SSDI with the help of her psychiatrist. Unfortunately, fees and penalties were being added to her debt by the month and the Department of Education was able to garnish $212 per month from her SSDI check to repay the now $45,000 loan.

Within 48 hours of her legal intake at Bread for the City, I had gotten the verification needed from Social Security and submitted her application to the Department of Education. Last week, we received Sandra’s approval letter for discharge of the full loan amount! We celebrated with a huge hug and a whole lot of savings. Not only will Sandra be getting her full SSDI benefits going forward, but she says that just knowing that she’s “debt-free” is going to be an enormous help to her mental health and physical wellness.

If you know someone who receives SSI/SSDI and has federal student loans, tell them to come to legal intake on a Monday from 1-3pm!

*Sandra’s name has been changed to protect client confidentiality.

Girl Scout Troop 1648: Changing our story

Girl ScoutsThe second- and third-graders of Girl Scout Troop 1648 have swiftly stolen our hearts here at Bread for the City. As part of their “Change Our Story” program — an initiative to make positive change in the lives of others, these savvy scouts learned all about Bread for the City from our own Stacey Johnson.

You’d better believe that the girls did not let Stacey leave empty-handed. The troop collected mountains of clothing, books, and food donations — packing a minivan to the brim! Making matters even better (and tastier), the girls of Troop 1648 also decided to donate $200 from their hard-earned Girl Scout Cookie sales to support Bread for the City. Wow!

BFC patchThen, a few weeks ago, we received another wonderful surprise from Troop 1648 — a special custom-made Bread for the City patch (now displayed on the girls’ sashes and vests) as well as a handmade quilt filled with lots of love for Bread for the City.

We think it’s pretty clear that these girls are even sweeter than their cookies. YOU GO GIRLS!

 

BFC’s PNC card program helps clients become cardholders

Here at Bread for the City, the services we provide orbit around two common principles that we refuse to compromise: dignity and respect. It was with these in mind that, in July 2012, we developed the PNC Debit Card program. This program offers clients of our Representative Payee Program the ability to have their expense money deposited onto a pre-paid debit card, which they can use to access their funds.

NDixonWe currently average 5 new PNC Debit Card program enrollments per month. In order to adjust clients to the new method of payment, we collaborate with their community support workers to ensure clients are trained in using their card and budgeting. Once a client is referred by their community support worker and the necessary paperwork is completed, they are officially, some for the first time, cardholders. They are able to access their funds for free at any PNC ATM, as well as make purchases anywhere VISA is accepted. Clients also have the ability to set up an online account to view the status of their balance, transactions, etc.

Most clients receive weekly deposits, although some receive deposits twice a month. Based on the client’s unique budget, these deposits range from $15-$125 per week. Since the the debit cards are pre-paid, clients don’t have to worry about overdraft fees.. As the representative payee, Bread for the City is able to assist the clients with managing their available balance, and if need be, corresponding directly with PNC.

Reception of the PNC Debit Card program has been positive from clients and case managers alike. According to BFC and RPP client, Nicole Dixon, who has been using a PNC debit card for almost two years, it is a much more convenient alternative to the check system: “Now I can just go to an ATM. Before, I had to go pick up the check, go to the bank… It was a whole lot of hassle.” Though the PNC program provides easier access to funds, budgeting has not proved to be an issue with the majority of PNC Card program participants. Budgeting her money while using her PNC card as opposed to checks is “no different,” says Dixon, who also has a certificate from Bread for the City for completing a budgeting class. Moving forward, with the help of Miss Dixon, we look to design more classes that teach clients tips for budgeting, viewing their balance and statements online, and more.

To many, there may be nothing meaningful about swiping a debit card when picking up their weekly groceries. For people in our community, however, this simple task may serve as a connection to the larger population and reduce some of the stigma that many of our RPP clients, who suffer from mental illness, struggle with on a daily basis. As an alternative to clients periodically picking up a check, the PNC card program also offers a sense of independence – a feeling that our clients may not enjoy as often as most. This is all in addition to the enormous convenience that the program offers clients. Most importantly, the PNC card program ensures that we are treating people with dignity and respect — a key part of the mission here at Bread for the City.

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We banned the box! Victory in the fight against workplace discrimination

Twice. That is how many times DC Council Chamber Room 500 erupted into cheers and applause. Some Council members looked pleased by our outburst, while others looked…well, less than pleased. It didn’t matter to us what they thought — we had made history.

btb councilYesterday, July 14, 2014, the DC City Council passed the strongest legislation against hiring discrimination and wage theft in the country. Both the Wage Theft Prevention and Fair Criminal Records Screening Act (Ban the Box) passed with a final vote of 13-0. Yes, they passed unanimously. This was such a tireless fight that could not have been won without effective coalition work, engagement of returning citizens at each step of the process, and effectively engaging our communities to act. Because of our collective work, persons with criminal or arrest records will not have to check a box on an application that identifies them as someone with a record. Employers will have to wait until after a conditional offer has been made to look into someone’s criminal history, which will allow them to make a final hiring decision based more so on merits than on preconceived notions of what it means for someone to be a returning citizen.

I am thankful to all of our supporters for each phone call, email, letter and visit to the Council Members to demand that they stand with workers. I am thankful to my coworkers, particularly Stacey Smith and Judy Hawkins who let me talk to community members in our Pre-Employment Program (PEP) and Wellness Space about Ban the Box. I am thankful to Councilman Tommy Wells for ushering this bill through committee and to Councilman Kenyan McDuffie for championing an amendment to strengthen the bill. I am thankful to btb group photoCouncilman Phil Mendelson for getting advocates to the table with the Chamber of Commerce, and to Chamber CEO Harry Wingo for working with us through marathon meetings to get to a compromise that everyone could live with. I am thankful to Marina Streznewski and the DC Jobs Council for leading the DC Ban the Box Coalition, and keeping us organized and focused. But most importantly, I am thankful to Chearie, James, Durante, Alisha, Antoine, Michael, Mr. Greene, Lashonia, Sherman Tanisha and countless other returning citizens who shared their stories with me, and most importantly, with the public. You are the reason behind our success.

So what happens next? Well, Mayor Vincent Gray has 10 business days to sign the bill into law. Once it is enacted, the real work begins — making sure that employers know and understand how to follow Ban the Box, making sure that the data is being tracked so we can measure effectiveness, and getting more returning citizens and advocates engaged in the work it will take to ensure this bill’s effectiveness!

We won!

Streamlining the affordable housing application process

Here at Bread for the City, when we see a gap, we work to fill it. One of the big challenges facing DC residents is securing affordable housing. While we can’t create more housing, we can work to provide access into the housing that exists. Out of that goal came the Housing Access Program (HAP), where we help our participants navigate the maze of subsidized apartment buildings and their application processes. While all of the subsidized apartment buildings receive a subsidy from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), there is no centralized process by which to apply for these units. Each apartment building is privately owned and independent of the others. Each building has its own, unique application. While each application is different, we quickly learned that they all ask for the same information from an applicant.

To fill that gap, we created a Housing Worksheet, which mimics a housing application and allows participants to gather all of their information in one place to use as a guide when completing all of the real housing applications. The Worksheet has been well-received, and our participants appreciate them. However, once a worksheet is complete, there is still the task of transferring the information to each individual application (sometimes the same information, like an applicant’s name, birth date, and social security number, are required in several places on the same application).

We had this vision of further streamlining the process by creating an electronic, consolidated application packet that would allow a user to type in their information once, which would then pre-populate several housing applications at once. All that would be left would be to print the applications, sign them, and submit them. A product like this would allow us to assist many more participants in a shorter time frame, speeding up the process for everyone. We named it Mega App.

Housing app demoEnter Code for DC. We wrote up plans for Mega App and got it in front of Code for DC’s nose. They were interested in working on this project with us and have done an incredible amount of work on it so far. While it is not yet complete, a demo of the project thus far knocked our socks off. We are so appreciative of the time and effort put forth by this group of volunteers working on their own time to create this app for us and our participants. Their dedication is evident in the care and thoughtfulness they put into this project, the questions they ask, and the changes they are eager to make.

Once it’s active, we can use it for almost every client who comes in for help with housing applications. Right now, we’re helping about 20 clients each week to fill out one housing application at a time by hand. With Mega App, that process will be sped up significantly, allowing us to see more clients in the same time period. We hope that this Mega App will one day be useful outside of Bread for the City’s walls and available to the community at large.

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Volunteer Spotlight: Debbie Sheetz, Yoga Instructor

If you stop by Bread for the City’s Northwest Center lobby at noon on Thursdays, you will usually be treated to quite the sight: a dozen rainbow-colored yoga mats, a quiet lobby, and a mix of clients and staff stretching out for this week’s yoga lesson. Debbie Sheetz generously volunteers her time and skills to teach this weekly class at the Northwest Center, which is open for anyone to join free of charge — even I was offered a mat, though I doubted my ability to do sun salutations in a skirt.

Before the class got under way, I had a chance to talk to some of the students about why they participated in Bread’s yoga class. One woman told me that yoga is good for the body; she said the stretching helped to keep her calm. Another woman told me that the weekly yoga classes helped her cope with her depression and balance problems. She has been attending the classes since February, and in the four months since, she’s moved from participating in a chair to having the flexibility to do the poses on the mat — a wonderful accomplishment!

After observing the class, and doing a bit of stretching myself, I got a chance to talk to Debbie about her experiences teaching yoga at Bread for the City:

yoga picHow did you first get involved with Bread for the City?

I found Bread for the City through an organization, Yoga Activist, that helps connect yoga teachers with volunteer and community work, and I started teaching classes just over two years ago.

What have you done as a volunteer?

I teach yoga classes every Thursday at noon at the Northwest Center, and I also teach the occasional day-long retreat for clients.

Why do you think your work is important?

Everyone can benefit from yoga, and making it accessible to everyone is important. Yoga can stop feelings of stress and improve your quality of life, and that should be accessible without spending so much money. I can see the benefits of yoga in my life and in others, and I want to be able to share that with others. There are so many ways to volunteer, to do something you enjoy, and seeing people’s reactions to your work is what keeps you going.

What do you like about volunteering with Bread for the City?

The staff at Bread are supportive, and everything is organized and well run. I feel like everyone’s efforts are being maximized, and everyone is enjoyable to work with.  Also, I feel like Bread for the City is a holistic organization, where the staff participates with the clients and community members. The clients are wonderful, from the core group who do yoga every week to those who just drop by, everyone is so appreciative.

Despite all the noise around us, you can find time to focus on what is inside you, and let everything else become the background. You can do yoga anywhere, you don’t need a studio. I just think yoga is fulfilling, there isn’t any radical change in your life, but it changes the quality of your life. And it helps to help others.

We thank Debbie for her contributions as a volunteer yoga instructor at Bread for the City. If you’d like to join her class, please stop by the Northwest Center on Thursdays at noon. All are welcome and the class is free!

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Transforming farmers’ markets into a place for community engagement

Through our free farmers’ markets, our food program provides people with free bags full of fresh produce every month at each of our centers. As our Southeast Center staff gathered to discuss ways to make the event a place for community engagement, we tossed around ideas.

“What if we added music and made this more fun for our clients?” Steven suggested. He recently joined Bread for the City as the new Intake & Community Resource Coordinator — and also the resident DJ.

Stacey Smith, director of our Pre-Employment Program, fondly recalled when music was a part of the free farmers’ markets, a Bread staple since 2010. “I’d love to bring that back.”

We also decided to add a food demo to the mix. “Folks getting produce can get some healthy-but-delicious ideas for preparing it,” said Aja, our community organizer.

Everyone agreed that adding music and food preparation could transform the Farmers’ Market into something that felt more caring and more interactive. And so the planning started!

Steven was going to handle the music, natural food guru Precious Frazier would prepare the recipes, and we’d see if a re-energized Farmers’ Market could live up to our high hopes.

free farmers marketAt 10:00am on Friday June 25th, the warm sounds of Al Jarreau’s “Morning” floated out of our gates, and we welcomed people from a line that had been building on 17th Street SE since 8:30am. A few people started bobbing their heads to the beat, and as they moved forward, the parking lot became a marketplace. Suddenly, the heat seemed more bearable and the line not as long. People weren’t just receiving food — they were having fun.

Staff from all different programs got on board to engage our community members. Stefanie from our Sustainable Agriculture crew brought down tomato plants for clients to take home and told them more about the rooftop garden. Case managers Stacey Smith and Arianna Rountree worked alongside energetic volunteers from Clark Construction. Aja brought out pitchers of cucumber basil water to keep clients cool. Steven kept us moving to the tunes of the Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, Chaka Khan and more. Precious made taste buds dance with her two summer salads — one with watermelon, sea salt and basil, the other a delicious mix of collards, sweet corn, and zucchini dressed with lemon and vinegar.

No longer were people just picking up produce and leaving. In the energetic conversations and grins among neighbors, volunteers, and staff, we were building community!

“You got the music for the spirit and the food to fortify the soul!” exclaimed Ms. Darlene, a longtime Farmers’ Market attendee. “It’s positive and beautiful.”

“This just feels so much more welcoming,” beamed Ms. Gail. “I would’ve never thought to use these vegetables this way,” she said as she watched Precious perform the food demo. That Friday, the smiles, laughter and love of nearly 200 people filled a small sunlit corner of Anacostia. On that day the Farmers’ Market served as a vibrant expression of  Bread’s mission to provide service with dignity and respect for our clients.

We look forward to creating the same spirit at the Northwest Farmers’ Market tomorrow! What songs do you think Steven should add to his playlist?

Free Groceries in DC: Where to Go and What You Need to Bring

We get a lot of questions in our Social Services program about food resources. Here is some basic information on where to start if you’re looking for additional groceries.

Bread for the City

We have food pantries in our NW and SE centers. If you live in DC; and your income falls within 200% of the federal poverty line; and you’re disabled, over 60 years old, or have dependent children under the age of 18, then you qualify for our food program.

margieHere’s what you need to bring:

  • Photo ID (required for each visit to get food)
  • Proof of address or access to cooking facilities in DC: rental receipt with recent date; statement from the Department of Human Services (DHS); current lease; utility bill. If you live in a shelter or with someone else, you must bring proof of access to cooking facilities.
  • Proof of spouse and/or dependents: anything bearing children’s names and parent’s current address-school records, medical bills, apartment lease, TANF papers or letter from DHS. We do not accept Social Security Cards, birth certificates, or Medicaid cards as proof.
  • Proof of age (if over 60): Driver’s license or non-driver’s ID, DHS ID, etc.
  • Proof of disability: SSI or SSDI statement or a signed letter from a doctor on doctor’s letterhead.
  • Proof of income: paycheck stub/receipt, letter from source of public benefits, copied check, SSI, SSDI, VA, OPM or other fixed income statement.

You can find complete information on the hours and requirements here.

Our Social Services departments also keep updated lists of other organizations that can provide groceries. Feel free to come to our NW or SE walk-in hours to speak with a case worker and request referrals to other organizations.

Hunger Lifeline

You can call to the Capital Area Food Bank’s hotline at (202) 644-9807 for information and referrals faxed to local food pantries for you.

Get Involved in Sustainable Agriculture at Bread

Happy July! We’ve got a lot going on in our Sustainable Agriculture Program this month. Here are some updates:

Volunteer at the Orchard!

orchardEvery Wednesday, we head out to the Orchard, leaving from the NW Center at 9:30am. We invite you to join us. We also have monthly weed-n-greet events called Crop Mobs on the second Saturday of every month until October. Groups welcome. The next one is July 12th! Contact volunteer@breadforthecity.org if you’re interested in joining us.

Success: Our First Crop Mob!

We had a bunch of folks attend our first Crop Mob from partner organizations around the city. It was one of the most efficient and well-coordinated workdays we’ve had, thanks to teamwork. To quote our Pest Control Manager, “It’s the first time we’ve gotten everything we set out to do, done.” Here are the pictures and tweets! The next one is July 12th, will you be there?

Event: Garden/Orchard Programming Meeting

Interested in helping us do more culturally appropriate, client-led or requested programming around health, nutrition, recreation, food justice, and culture? Want to do more on the rooftops or at the Orchard? Sustainable Ag wants to work with other programs and community members to do so. Join us on Thursday, July 10th, 10am-11am at our Southeast Center to talk about possibilities. Email zcurtis@breadforthecity.org if you’re interested in joining the meeting.

Urban Gardening this Summer: Free Classes Galore!

A few organizations are offering free garden classes. Some require online registration. Email zcurtis@breadforthecity.org if you need computer access to sign up.

  • DPR Free Summer Garden Class. Register Here.
  • Wangari Gardens Free Summer Garden Workshops. Email wangarigardens@gmail.com for more info.
  • Intro to Herbal Medicine Series in NW, DC! Register here.

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Happy 4th: Celebrate Nutritiously

This 4th of July, instead of going for the mystery meat hot dog, choose a grilled chicken breast topped with some zesty salsa. Try exchanging that sugar-ladened ice cream for a refreshing fruit-based popsicle! These are some of the easy, delicious switches that will make celebrating our independence that much healthier.

Here’s to our pursuit of happiness and foods that are better for us — and even taste better! Happy birthday, America!

Grilled Chicken and Tomato Pineapple Salsa

Ingredients

For the Chicken:

  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons orange juice
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 4 boneless skinless chicken breast halves (4 ounces each)

For the Salsa:

  • 4 plum tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 cup cubed fresh pineapple
  • 1/2 cup chopped sweet red pepper
  • 1/3 cup chopped red onion
  • 1/4 cup lime juice
  • 3 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped

Directions

1. In a large resealable plastic bag, combine the first eight ingredients; add chicken. Seal bag and turn to coat; refrigerate for 4 hours. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine salsa ingredients. Cover and refrigerate until serving.

2. Drain and discard marinade. Grill, covered, over medium heat for 5-6 minutes on each side or until a meat thermometer reads 170°. Serve with salsa. Yield: 4 servings (3 cups salsa).

Minted Watermelon Popsicles

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 pounds seedless watermelon without the rind, cut into 1-inch dice (about 4 cups)
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/4 cup mint leaves, minced
  • 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
  • Pinch of salt

Directions

1. In a blender, puree the watermelon with the sugar until smooth. Stir in the mint, lemon zest and salt. Pour the puree into 8 popsicle molds or 2 standard ice cube trays (insert popsicle sticks halfway through freezing) and freeze until hard, about 3 hours.

Enjoy!!