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The war on the impoverished

Until you’ve gone without you’ll never know what it’s like to be poor – not to have enough for basic functions of life and the expectation that your nonexistent bootstraps are giving you leverage to pull yourself up.

Do you know the degradation experienced while going through the process of applying for any type of assistance available through Onondaga County? Most people don’t have a clue, so it’s easy to dismiss the poor and the hoops that have to be navigated in order to qualify for shelter, a crust of bread, a Kilowatt of electricity or a smidgen of natural gas.

We have a very efficient safety net here in Onondaga County with programs designed to keep families from becoming homeless and methods to prevent people from losing their power during the chill of winter.

However, in order to qualify there’s a maze that has to be navigated – one that whittles human dignity down to a nub.

Have you ever had a government employee read an aid application to you? Have you ever been treated as if you had special needs? Go to any of our Onondaga County-run agencies that provide aid and you may find the same behavior that I did.

People ask me what to do when faced with situations; sometimes I will tell them to just go to this agency or that organization and everything will work out. But there have been times when I’ve followed my own advice and was ashamed that I had given this same advice I was now following. Having not faced these situations it was very easy for me to advise, “Go to see this person or that agency”.

I made a visit to H.E.A.P., the Home Energy Assistance Program, to find out just how the process worked. What surprised me was the callousness of the Onondaga County worker.

She (the county worker) opened the door, my name was called, and after I traveled 40 feet down the hallway a voice in front of me said, “You left the door open. Go back and close the door.” I couldn’t believe my ears. This person was telling me to go back to the entry door and close it. This wasn’t a request – it was an order.

In shock I went back and did as I was told. As I sat in her office and listened, I had questions, and at one point she picked up the paper and held it at eye level in front of me and said, “This is what I’m talking about. Do you understand?” as she continued to run her finger over the text.

As my income was being examined and bank records poured over, I decided that my dignity was more important than heat. I got up and left.

Originally Posted May 13, 2012

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