The Demoralization of Government Assistance
If you want anything to be completely fucked up, let the government handle it. I learned this the hard way early Tuesday morning.
My family and I moved to another county in Florida back in June. I had our electricity transferred to our new address as soon as I knew our move in date of 6/4/09. We were on a budget billing plan before moving, which is an average of the past 12 months of usage compiled into a set amount to be paid each month. What I didn’t know is that when you move, even just transferring service, the difference in the amount owed becomes due immediately….just as if I had moved and required a final bill. Our electric bill is $1100.00. It has been transferred over to our new address and due on 8/18/09. I called to set up a payment arrangement, but was told we didn’t live here long enough.
No kidding….we just moved in geniuses…..but we did have service for the past 11 months. They decided we were eligible for a partial payment arrangement in the amount of $650.00. That’s great, but how does that help for the balance of $450.00 + our actual new bill of $334.00 + the payment arrangement added on each month for $650.00, which is $108.33? Our new total due on 8/18/09 is $818.83. Ummm….we still don’t have that amount lying around either.
I don’t know anyone who has an extra $1100.00 or $818.83 just lying around, so I started looking into agencies for help. I don’t want someone to pay my bills, but if the electric company in question, Progress Energy Florida, will not let me pay in installments, I have no choice…I need the electricity on. Duh?
I finally found one that had funds available. Seminole County Emergency Financial Assistance Agency. They help with rent, utilities, medical, dental, funeral and cremation expenses. I had to print out a six page application. I filled it out, copied all necessary IDs, Social Security cards, bank statements, my lease agreement, and most importantly, my huge electric bill. Oh, and I had to write a personal hardship letter explaining why I was in this situation. I had everything in order. When I called on Monday, they were very specific. I had to be there by 7:30 AM, but recommended I come earlier, as people were lining up as soon as possible. They only let 37 people in and stopped letting people in at 8:30 AM. No more applications would be taken after that. So, I decided to go at 5:30 AM.
I had to take my 2 boys, ages 8 and 1 year. My husband had to work. I get there at 5:40 AM and there is a line already with people on air mattresses with blankets. I talked to a few people, all very nice, all had jobs, and almost all had been there multiple times. One man in particular explained that this was his 5th time coming here. Not for help each time, but atatempting for the same assistance each time. He proceeded to tell me that if one thing on the application was incorrect, left blank or didn’t have N/A, if appropriate….they sent you home. If you don’t have to pay for water and you don’t write a zero in the space, they don’t let you fill in a simple zero in the blank….off you go. It sounded ludicrous.
After a few hours, one of the biggest women I have ever seen came outside. She was easily 6 foot 5 inches tall and weighed probably 300 pounds. She could have been a bouncer at any club. Her voice was like a bomb going off. She was yelling at everyone in line.
“If you don’t have all of your paperwork filled out correctly, you will be sent home.” ; “Make sure that this line in straight.”; “I am only letting in 37 people and the kids count, so if there is anyone with you that doesn’t need to be, have them stay in your car or go home.”
She started counting….she let they babies go uncounted, but my 8 year old was counted. This seemed nuts to me, as my son was not asking for assistance and he was taking the place of someone who really needed the help, but I had no choice. I was lucky I came early, as I was number 25 and Jake was 26. We went in, single file, no one speaking for fear of getting thrown out. We were handed a number just like at the Wal-Mart Deli and told that we were being locked in, could not leave, could not use any cell phones, no food or drink allowed and if we missed our number being called the first time…too bad. It was like being run by the Russian Mafia. Not one person was rude or inconsiderate. I am sure that woman has had to deal with her share of assholes, but there was no reason to be as rude and outright mean to any of us in there. Not one person was rude to her or out of line in any way.
I was there for 6 1/2 hours. I went over my application and paperwork over and over again, just to make sure there was no reason to send me home. My kids were exceptionally well behaved. I felt so badly for them, as I had to wake them up so early for this. I always carry a cooler bag with drinks and lots of snacks when we go anywhere. I was damned if my kids would be denied foor and drink because of some unsufferable rule. I watched how each person was called and could not help but notice what they had to do. There were seats for us to sit and wait to be called up to a big plexi-glass window with a hole cut out to speak through and a space below to slide paperwork through. This counter was lower to the ground than most service counters and there were NO chairs to sit at this window. Each person had to literally get down on their knees in order to pass paperwork through. Their files and folders were all over the floor and the symbolism was so blatant. Everyone was on theirs knees asking for help. It was degrading, demeaning, demoralizing and just plain pathetic.
It’s a good thing I was raised Catholic…I was used to kneeling.
When my number, 77, was finally called, I was legitimately scared. Thankfully, my application was all in order. I had everything they needed. I was honest. I had cash deposits on my bank statement. My husband has not been able to find a legitimate job in over a year. He works for cash doing various home repair and remodel work for homeowners and Realtors. He has business cards and bids jobs through word of mouth. If he could find a legitimate job that deducted taxes, offered benefits…all the usual stuff, don’t you think we would have took it by now? But their guidelines were this:
Anyone who worked for cash or “under the table” was not eligible for any assistance. I waited 6 1/2 hours with my 2 children to be told no in 10 seconds. I could have lied. I could have said he was out of work….no job…unemployed. But no, I was honest and I was told no.
A few minutes before this happened, a woman came out from the back. She was hysterical. Tears streaming from her face. I could not understand what she was saying, as she spoke Spanish. I felt badly for her and gave her a bottle of water I had in my cooler bag. I told her everything would be fine. A worker came out from the back to speak to her. I couldn’t understand most of the conversation, but I saw that the worker gave her other agencies that may be of help. I know all of the agencies by now and there is no other help available. I couldn’t help but think that she may be homeless in a few days…maybe she had kids….it was an awful scene.
This is what makes me so angry:
This is a county, governmental run agency. Every single person in that room who had a job was paying for these workers to belittle and degrade them. We pay their salaries and this is the treatment that is afforded to the people who are working 12 hour days, 7 days a week. We were here for help, not to be treated like animals.
So, for all of those people that got down on their knees and essentially begged for help….myself included…do not feel ashamed. There is just not enough help out there for the working class. All of the bank executives and CEO’s are being bailed out and going on huge retreats in exchange for bankrupting their companies…while the working middle class is being belittled by government agencies for help with the electric bill that has skyrocketed because Progress Energy was granted the permission to increase their rates…..yet again. If anyone should feel ashamed it is the workers who treated us all like second class citizens. Those workers have a job and had no sympathy for the ones who just could not make ends meet. I wonder how they would feel if they were in our positions? It is the government that should be ashamed that they allow people to be treated this way all in the name of serving the public. Don’t advertise government help if the end result is going to be discouraging and degrading.
So, I am off to research other assistance agencies. I am trying my best to stay positive and I am definitely not one to cry over the failure of our government or my difficulties paying my gigantic elelectric bill. I will find a way…I always do. There will be accountability. There will be change.
Until then, letters to my Senators, Congressmen, Governor Charlie Crist, Mayor John F. Bush of Winter Springs (how ironic) and every single News Station for Central Florida have just begun.