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Q.A. With Deborah Dennis: New SOAR Technical Assistance Center Available
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Obtaining Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and/or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is a difficult and complicated process. The SSI/SSDI, Outreach, Access, and Recovery (SOAR) approach was developed to improve access to these benefits for people experiencing homelessness. Deborah Dennis, Project Director of the SOAR Technical Assistance Center, describes how states can access the new Center.

The application process to access Social Security disability benefits (SSI and SSDI) for people who are homeless with mental health problems is complicated and difficult to navigate. The SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access and Recovery (SOAR) strategy was developed in 2005 to assist states in accessing SSI/SSDI for people who are homeless or at risk for homelessness.  In September 2009, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) awarded a five-year contract to Policy Research Associates, Inc. (PRA) to operate a new SOAR Technical Assistance Center.

What is the SOAR Technical Assistance Center?

The SOAR Technical Assistance Center is a SAMHSA funded effort to increase access to Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) for people who are homeless with mental illness. The establishment of the SOAR Technical Assistance Center by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) will provide the opportunity for every state in the country to receive SOAR technical assistance and training.

What are SSI and SSDI?

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) are disability income benefits administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA) that generally also provide either Medicaid and/or Medicare health insurance to individuals who are eligible. Obtaining these benefits is often a critical first step in recovery. For people who are homeless with mental health problems, access to these programs can be extremely challenging. The application process for SSI/SSDI is complicated, detailed, and often difficult to navigate.

How did the SOAR approach begin?

When we worked with homeless service providers in states involved in the Homeless Policy Academies in 2001, we kept hearing providers complain about the difficulties in getting benefits for their clients from the Social Security Administration (SSA).   During this same time, we had begun working with Yvonne Perret, a social worker in Baltimore who was implementing a SSA funded pilot program to increase access to SSI for people who were homeless with mental illness.  Together, we took this successful SSI pilot program operated by the University of Maryland to a national audience.

To implement SOAR in a state, we first convene a planning meeting of key stakeholders (Social Security Administration, Disability Determination Services, medical providers, state agency leadership, Department of Corrections representatives, and community homeless, health and behavioral health providers) to develop an action plan for implementing the SOAR approach.  We assist in identifying individuals in local communities within the state who will be trained in implementing SOAR.  Our SOAR team conducts a Train-the-Trainer program with these local individuals that includes SAMHSA’s Stepping Stones to Recovery training curriculum.  The local trainers educate others to use the SOAR approach and we provide ongoing technical assistance to states and communities. Using the SOAR strategy, 71 percent of more than 4,000 initial applications from 32 states were approved in an average of 89 days.  This compares to an estimated approval rate of 10-15 percent for applications from people who are homeless and who do not have help to apply.

How can you access the SOAR Technical Assistance Center?

States interested in implementing SOAR can email us if they are not a SOAR state.  To find out if SOAR is implemented in your state, go to the SOAR website and look for your state in the list of SOAR States. You can search for the team leader and trainers in your state. There are 34 states participating in SOAR and we are providing onsite technical assistance to 20 of them this year.  We plan to add eight new states in 2010 and eight the following year. We are also developing an online SOAR curriculum that should be available some time in 2011.

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