Lisa Lengenfelder’s welfare benefits were about to expire so she headed to a Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) office to apply for an extension.
With her history of mental illness, Legenfelder thought she would qualify to get more time on the benefit allotted to people with disabilities. People can use Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits for a total of 60 months, with some exceptions.
But instead of helping her, a DSHS worker told her not to bother applying; she wouldn’t qualify anyway.
“Front desking,” social workers say, is when someone at DSHS sends a client or potential client away before they’ve even filled out an application.
The Human Dignity Support Project was created to help people like Lengenfelder overcome front- desking and other mistreatment they receive from DSHS, the state welfare agency that serves more than 2 million people.
Founded by former DSHS client and Statewide Poverty Action Network board member Juanita Maestas, The Human Dignity Support Project matches people with a volunteer who will work with them as they apply for services.
Human Dignity Support Project volunteers attend meetings, take notes, hold DSHS officials accountable and make sure they follow the rules.
Having a third party in the room makes all the difference, Maestas said.
“When you go by yourself, it’s your word against their word,” Maestas said. “They have the upper hand.”
Evonne Zook, a benefits attorney at Solid Ground, agrees.
“There’s a big disparity of power between those who act as gatekeepers of services and those who are dependent on those services,” Zook said.
It is increasingly hard for people to access help from DSHS, Zook said, a trend the Human Dignity Support Project can help to offset.
People seeking help from DSHS may work with several caseworkers. In the past, each person was assigned a single caseworker. Trying to get through to someone who can help can take hours by phone, Zook said. Often, they will get two separate answers from different caseworkers.
Then there’s the front desking that happened to Lengenfelder. People are often turned away without even seeing a paper application. Sometimes they are sent to a computer and left to navigate the application process alone.
“That’s wrong,” Zook said. “They need to have an application, they need to be encouraged to apply in writing and have a denial or any kind of approval in writing.”
Zook acknowledged the challenges faced by DSHS since the Great Recession. Demand for services has increased, with more than 500,000 additional clients from 2007 to 2012.
“They are overwhelmed; they’ve had to cut staff,” Zook said.
Babs Roberts, DSHS community services division director, said DSHS is looking to improve customer service.
“It would be hypocritical for me to sit here and say it never happens,” Roberts said of front desking and similar complaints.
In 2013, the agency held trainings to create a “culture of respect,” Roberts said. DSHS held mandatory workshops for all DSHS staff members to learn how to treat DSHS clients with more respect.
Conditions at the agency have improved since the recession, Roberts said. The agency lifted a long hiring freeze and has added 100 more workers for the call center, which may receive as many as 500,000 calls in a month.
Roberts was enthusiastic about the work of the Human Dignity Support Project, despite the group’s sharp criticism of DSHS.
Having a second set of eyes and ears in the room will help clients understand what’s happening, she said.
“It does sound like a pretty great group,” Roberts said.
The support worked for Lengenfelder. Following the loss of her TANF benefits, she spent a year surviving on $225 a month in child support for her daughter, which barely covered her $207 rent at a Tacoma Housing Authority apartment.
At an advocacy day in Olympia during the recent legislative session, Lengenfelder met Maestas and explained her effort to get an extension of her TANF benefits.
Maestas accompanied Lengenfelder to meetings with DSHS. Lengenfelder met with a psychologist who determined that Lengenfelder does have a mental illness — PTSD and chemical dependency issues — and is qualified for additional TANF support because she is disabled.