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Published: Sunday, 4/4/2010

Area agency delivers aid to those who need it most

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Janice K. Dillon remembers a day when doctors made house calls with little black satchels that seemed to have a cure for everything.

Boy, times have changed.

While that kind of personal, in-home attention may be rare from doctors these days, there is a growing interest among service agencies to meet the disadvantaged and disabled at libraries, festivals, churches, senior centers, soup kitchens, Goodwill stores, housing shelters, and other places where people congregate - or even contacting them, as in Mrs. Dillon's case, with a house call.

Mobile Benefit Bank is a program created in 2009 by Advocates for Basic Legal Equality Inc., in conjunction with the Toledo Community Foundation, the United Way of

Greater Toledo, and the Lucas County Department of Job and Family Services.

Here's how it works: Five AmeriCorps volunteers set up shop at their various locales across Lucas County on any given day with mobile technology that includes a laptop, scanner, printer, and air card (the latter allows them Internet access wherever they go).

People in need of services varying from food stamps to child care to rental assistance can get one-stop help in sifting through the maze of government bureaucracy - volunteers even help fill out their income taxes.

Those seeking help won't get any money on the spot. But they can have their needs instantly assessed. They can learn from the computer software what their odds are of receiving assistance if they apply for certain programs.

They'll learn which programs are the best match for them, and can - for example - get some paperwork started for a Jobs and Family Services caseworker.

A free legal assessment also can be done on the spot. Legal help may include bankruptcy, consumer debt, immigration, and divorce and domestic violence cases.

Records show a strong correlation exists between those in need of services and those in need of legal assistance.

Of the 978 screenings performed by the Mobile Benefit Bank from March, 2009, through March, 2010, 85 percent were by clients who agreed to have a legal assessment done. Ninety-five percent of those learned their ability to improve their situation in life was being impeded by an outstanding legal matter.

Free legal services are available to those who qualify from ABLE, an attorney group that shares office space and resources with Legal Aid of Western Ohio Inc. in the Center for Equal Justice across from the Lucas County arena.

Mrs. Dillon, a 67-year-old South Toledo widow with multiple health issues, just had a feeling that ABLE or Legal Aid might be able to help her when she called an intake hot line a few months ago to report a problem she was having with the Social Security Administration.

The federal agency told her she had exhausted her benefits, and actually owed Uncle Sam more than $3,000.

"I couldn't afford that. I didn't know what to do," said Mrs. Dillon, whose husband, Bill Dillon, a former employee of the city's sewage department, died 35 years ago.

As she aged, she developed dystonia, a neurological condition that attacks her muscles and makes it impossible for her to walk.

Among other things, Mrs. Dillon also is a diabetic and a breast cancer survivor.

She gets by on a scooter, but is homebound except for when family members are able to transport her.

Mrs. Dillon said she wants other shut-ins to know that the Mobile Benefit Bank is a great potential resource for them.

And that - yes - it even makes house calls.

"I didn't know they would do that. I thought it was very, very nice," she said. "It was easier for me in the long run."

She was to receive an assessment update Friday from Craig Mossing, one of the five AmeriCorps volunteers who operates the Mobile Benefit Bank.

Mr. Mossing said it's amazing how many people are unaware of services to which they're entitled, such as services that often are available from churches, senior centers, and other facilities in their own neighborhoods.

"You'd think if somebody couldn't put food on the table for their family that they'd know there is a food pantry three blocks away," he said. "But a lot of times, they don't."

In Mrs. Dillon's case, lawyers resolved issues the Social Security Administration had raised to her satisfaction, and got her benefits restored. Much of her debt cited by that agency was forgiven. And she got food stamps, which freed up a big chunk of her fixed income for other bills that were piling up.

"I think it's important for others to know this is available," she said.

The idea of a benefit bank helping low-income people weed through the morass of government programs is not new; Ohio has 850 of them and 4,000 trained volunteers at fixed locations.

The novelty of the Mobile Benefit Bank is its ability to pick up and go - to penetrate crowds, if you will - and take services to the streets. It also offers a unique tie-in with legal services, Debra Jennings, ABLE's managing attorney, said.

"The whole point [of the Mobile Benefit Bank] is it's not a brochure," she said. "It's 'Sit down and we'll help you now.'•"

Some people have physical handicaps that restrict their access. Some have mental handicaps.

Others are simply oblivious to what's out there or, perhaps, too cynical or impatient to navigate through the traditional bureaucratic process on their own.

"Our goal was to reach people who were not accessing services for whatever reason," Ms. Jennings said.

Many of those eligible are the so-called "working poor" struggling to make ends meet, even while holding down jobs.

Toledo's economy has been bleak for years, but has been exacerbated by the prolonged recession at the national level.

The latest U.S. Census Bureau poverty statistics rank Toledo the nation's eighth-most impoverished city, with 24.7 percent of its residents living below the poverty line. That's nearly twice the national poverty rate of 13.2 percent.

The federal government defines the poverty line these days as an annual income of $22,050 or less for a family of four, or $10,830 for a single person, in the 48 contiguous states. Alaska and Hawaii are the only two states with separate guidelines, both of which are slightly higher.

More than 48,000 requests for assistance were logged during a recent six-month period by the United Way of Greater Toledo. The agency has said that included thousands of requests on its 211 hot line from people who had never contacted the agency previously.

Statistics show more than half of the babies born in Lucas County today begin their lives on Medicaid. According to the Lucas County Department of Job & Family Services, 90,000 county residents get some sort of assistance at any given time.

Area missions and soup kitchens report serving more people for shelter and food. Women now comprise one of the fastest-growing segments of the homeless population.

For more information, call the United Way's 2-1-1 hot line.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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