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Can government services force you to seek housing as a condition of getting benefits and services?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

 

The legal qualifications for public assistance benefits are based upon financial assets and health, not on housing. The regulations do not authorize government agencies to withhold benefits from the homeless or to make them contingent upon somebody’s becoming un-homeless. Nevertheless, staff might encourage homeless clients to participate in programs to get them into government subsidized apartments or other housing.       

A homeless applicant, knowing that the law does not require him to give up being homeless in order to get federal disability benefits, medical assistance, or food stamps, must also realize that the law does not forbid government agencies from informing clients about housing programs. There is no law preventing them from even requiring someone to listen to a long housing presentation when applying for disability, food stamps, or medical assistance. This knowledge, that only information-not housing can be forced upon him, should prevent a homeless person from feeling pressured to conform or feeling frustrated that he might not get the benefits.   

This is another situation in which being familiar with the law does not necessarily give someone grounds to sue. Instead, it helps assure more balanced communication in which the client need not feel like a victim and the service provider need not feel like an enemy. Sometimes, agencies tell clients about other programs for which they are eligible only to be sure that the client knows about that eligibility. Sometimes, they tell because getting into the other program might lead to the client’s no longer needing government assistance.

There is nothing illegal about either of those motives. Anyone who takes offense at them is choosing not to appreciate that they are offerings of help, offers that can certainly be declined without fear of punishment. Clients always have the right to say something like, “I’m aware that the food stamp regulations do not require me to participate in the housing program or to have my own permanent address, but thank you for offering me that information.”

 Links to government support programs:

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Can you have different addresses at which you get mail for different purposes?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

 

The phrase “legal address” is used to indicate the place where someone makes his or her home.  If you do not have a home and you get mail delivered to places that gave you permission to do so, it is legal to use those addresses.   In other words, the phrase “illegal address” would not describe that arrangement.

 The law does not prevent homeless people from having their mail delivered to multiple places.  If you want your Social Security mail delivered to your case worker’s office and your medical mail delivered to your brother’s house you only have to know about the policies of the people or offices sending the mail and the willingness of the places receiving the mail.  (See the other posts about mail for more ideas about researching mail-related rights.)

 Of course, you also have to worry about confusing an agency’s record keeping system. As long as it is necessary to complete separate applications for separate services, there is probably no reason to assume that a single address has to be used on all of them. However, if all of the services are administered under one agency, such as the state department of health and human services, there’s a likelihood that all client data goes into a single database where the most recently entered street address applies to everything involving a client.

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Do you need an address to get access to government services such as Welfare, Food Stamps, Medicaid, and Social Security Disability?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Government agencies have to verify residency and citizenship when providing ongoing services to clients. They realize, however, that residency for the homeless is in places like lobbies, halfway houses, bus stations, churches, and other people’s houses.  When people have those kinds of non-permanent residences, the agencies have a variety of ways to confirm that somebody is who he claims to be and that he generally resides in the place he claims.

The Social Security Administration, which provides financial support for the elderly and disabled, has detailed policies in place for verifying an applicant’s identity.[i] Because that agency is one of the country’s official registrars of citizens,[ii] it has an enormous database of identifying facts about each person here. Using that database, the staff can ask applicants to state their social security number and then answer simple questions including date of birth and parents’ names to establish their identity without having to show an ID card with a street address.
When determining where an applicant can usually be located, Social Security staff are required to “assume that transient or homeless individuals need assistance in providing evidence of their living arrangements.”[iii] This means that the staff will make note of the shelters and other services and places where the applicant reports spending time and will rely on verifications from witnesses who regularly see the claimant at any of those places.

There is a specific provision of the Social Security Disability regulations asserting that people are still eligible for the benefits when they are in a homeless shelter.[iv]

Food stamps, Temporary Aid to Needy Families (a.k.a. “TANF” or “cash assistance”), and Medicaid are federally funded public assistance programs that are administered through state agencies rather than through federal branch offices located in those states. All of these are available to homeless people but, because they have state administration, do not follow exact federal identification rules the way the Social Security programs do. Instead, the public assistance or welfare office in each state makes its own rules about how claimants can prove that they are homeless and lack sufficient financial resources to pay for their own food,[v] healthcare, and other basic needs.[vi]

The United States Code has a basic standard for states to follow in establishing their public assistance eligibility requirements. “The State shall require…that each applicant for or recipient of benefits under that program furnish to the State his social security account number and the State shall utilize such account numbers so as to enable the association of the records pertaining to the applicant or recipient with his account number.”[vii] In other words, if someone does not have a street address, his social security number will be used as the fall-back I.D. validation.

Supplemental to that, the Department of Health and Human Services declares in its fact sheet about Medicaid prescription drug coverage for the homeless that “a Post Office Box, an address of a shelter or clinic, or the address where the individual receives mail (e.g. social security checks) may be considered the place of permanent residence.”[viii]

The United States Department of Agriculture, in its regulations about how states can verify the residency of food stamp applicants says that if a homeless person does not have documents showing that he is affiliated with a street address, “the State agency shall use a collateral contact or other readily available documentary evidence…Any documents or collateral contact which reasonably establish the applicant’s residency must be accepted and no requirement for a specific type of verification may be imposed. No durational residency requirement shall be established.”[ix]

The State offices tend to follow these guidelines with minor variations.

Sample laws:

In California, the residency regulation for food stamps says that the welfare department “shall not require an otherwise eligible household to reside in a permanent dwelling or have a fixed mailing address as a condition of eligibility”.[x] If a California applicant declares a shelter as his residence, the local food stamp office has to confirm that the shelter primarily houses people who are homeless, limits the amount of time that people can stay there, and does not have any kind of lease arrangements with people who stay there.[xi] If a California applicant is not affiliated with a shelter, the food stamp office will decide, after interviewing the applicant, what proof of residency to obtain.New York’s regulations merely declare that an application for food stamps will be accepted even if it only has the applicant’s name and signature and no other information, not even an address. Those regulations do not tell how the department will confirm that an applicant is truly homeless.

In Illinois, only one application is needed when requesting cash assistance, medical assistance, and/or food stamps and that application simply asks “Are you homeless? Yes / No”.[xii] The Illinois Administrative Code explains that homeless people applying for assistance through the Department of Human Services can use a friend or relative’s address or the address of a social service agency or the closest DHS office.[xiii]

To find a state’s food stamp address requirement, look in the state health and human services department’s regulations.  Here is a link to a site that lists administrative codes http://www.llsdc.org/state-leg/. Look in the administrative code’s index under “food stamps” or else look to see if there is an entire section or volume of health and human services regulations. Another way to find these regulations is navigating through the state health and human services department’s Web site. http://www.acf.hhs.gov/

Since an address is not merely used for benefit applications, but is also necessary for ongoing correspondence between clients and government agencies, the agencies might recommend that homeless clients identify a caseworker or social service agency as their contact person or “authorized representative.”[xiv] That way, there will be a consistent place where mail can be sent and where the homeless client knows to check-in.

Serving as the authorized representative is often a basic job duty of someone who works in a shelter.[xv] Another possibility is that applicants can designate someone to serve as a “representative payee” to receive and deposit checks and generally manage their funds. That relationship clearly involves more than simply providing an address, but that is because it is available to claimants, not on the basis of homelessness, but because they cannot or don’t want to manage money.

A Pennsylvania case cautions about deciding which street address to list when applying for government services. The plaintiff in this case, who later became homeless, had applied for unemployment benefits at an address far away from where he now spent most of his time. He was not allowed to pick-up his benefits check at the office closest to his real location and was instead required to make the long, expensive, time consuming trek to the office near the original address.[xvi] There may be more efficient ways to change an address with a government agency now, and more understanding of the difficulties that homeless people have in documenting their actual whereabouts, but the caution is still worth noting.


[i] Social Security Administration, Program Operations Manual System (POMS)- Section SI 00601.062. The POMS is available online at http://www.ssa.gov/regulations/. See also the Fact Sheet on Supplemental Security Income available from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty http://www.nlchp.org/content/pubs/Fact%20Sheet%20on%20SSI%2020011.pdf

[ii] See the background note at the beginning of the Social Security Administration POMS- Section RM 00203-001. “Over time, the SSN has increasingly been used as a multi-purpose identifier by government, business, and other organizations.”

[iii] Social Security Administration, POMS – Section SI 00835.060

[iv] 20 CFR §416.201. Note that this regulation is part of a broader rule stating that people in the care of institutions are not eligible for the benefits. Since homeless shelters do not provide care, they are exempted from that rule.

[v] U.S. Dep’t. of Agriculture, An Introduction to the Food Stamp Program, http://www.mrsh.net/firststep/firststep%20(d)/content/foodtips.html This is a page of tips for caseworkers assisting homeless food stamp applicants.

[vi] U.S.Dep’t of Health and Human Services, An Introduction to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, http://www.mrsh.net/firststep/firststep%20(d)/content/tanf_tips.html  Here is the link to the States’ programs: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ofa/help

[vii] 42 USC §1320b-7(1)

[viii] U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, What Do I Need to Know to About Medicare Prescription Drug Coverage to Help My Homeless Clients?, http://www.cms.hhs.gov/HomelessnessInitiative/Downloads/HomelessFactSheet.pdf

[ix] 7 CFR Ch.II §273.2

[x] California Dep’t of Social Services Food Stamp Regulations 63-401.5

[xi] California Dep’t of Social Services Information Notice # 1-04-04. Available at http://www.dss.cahwnet.gov/getinfo/acin04/pdf/I-04_04.pdf

[xii] Application available at http://www.dhs.state.il.us/page.aspx?item=33698

[xiii] Ill. Adm. Code tit. 89 §10.210 (2006).

[xiv]U.S. Dep’t of Agriculture, An Introduction to the Food Stamp Program, http://www.cms.hhs.gov/apps/firststep/content/foodtips.html ; Wash. Admin. Code 388-408-0050 and 388-460-0005 available at http://apps.leg.wa.gov/wac/

[xv] See, New Hampshire’s homeless resources list http://www.nhhealthykids.com/homeless-resources and the Massachusetts Legal Help list of SNAP facts about ways for homeless people to access food stamps. http://www.masslegalhelp.org/income-benefits/fshomelessness

[xvi] Regoli v. Commw Unemployment Bd. Rev. Unemployment Comp. Bd. Rev., 427 A.2d 1275 (Pa. Commw. Ct., 1981).

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Under what circumstances can you use the address of a service organization or shelter?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

The law does not give anyone the right to use an agency’s address without permission. Shelters and service organizations will usually have clear policies if they allow clients to use their address to get mail. Those policies, which could require participation in particular services on a regular basis and over a certain amount of time, are a form of contract.  This means that only by agreeing to cooperate with the agency’s terms is somebody allowed to use the address.  Not cooperating is a breach of the contract.  Once the contract has been breached, the agency no longer has an obligation to allow that person to use the address and the staff can write “return to sender” on incoming mail.

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Is anyone else allowed to open and read your mail before you do?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

It is a federal crime to intercept mail. Opening and reading someone else’s mail is a crime above and beyond that.[i] Even though most federal crimes are investigated by the FBI, those relating to mail are handled by the postal inspection service. The crimes are identified in Title 18 of the U.S. Code Chapter 83

That section, titled “Obstruction of mails generally,” states that anyone who “knowingly and willfully obstructs or retards the passage of the mail” will be fined and/or imprisoned for up to six months. Section 1702 says that taking mail out of a mail box or from a mail carrier, “before it has been delivered to the person to whom it was directed, with design to obstruct correspondence, or to pry into the business or secrets of another, or opens, secretes, embezzles, or destroys the same, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”
These sound like clear crimes, but they become convoluted if someone is having mail delivered to another person’s address and the address holder feels some degree of responsibility to watch for checks or important messages. If there has been some agreement between a homeless person and an address holder giving the address holder permission to open and preview mail, then there probably won’t be anybody filing a complaint to the postal inspector alleging that the mail has been obstructed.
The person with the right to file that kind of complaint would be the person named in the mail. This is an example of when it can be very helpful to have a written agreement identifying responsibilities and expectations. In fact, an address holder would be wise to get written permission if a homeless friend has asked that mail be opened. That way, if there is ever a legal complaint that he was obstructing correspondence or prying into secrets, the address holder can prove that he was not opening the mail for those reasons, he was opening it to only satisfy the request of the homeless person.
The federal law against “theft or receipt of stolen mail matter generally” supports the right of homeless people to get their mail even if they have arranged to have it sent to an address where they don’t live and they have authorized someone to open it and see what’s inside.  That law, in Title 18 Section 1708 forbids taking or trying to take mail or even one item contained within a mailed package or envelope. An address holder with written permission to open mail who does open the mail, but then uses something in that mail for his own benefit or simply doesn’t hand it over, has committed a federal crime.
If any of these obstruction or theft of mail crimes seems to have occurred, there are two ways that a victim can file a complaint with the Postal Inspection Service: 1. by making a report in person at any post office, which will involve completing a form and then being available for the postal inspector’s follow-up investigation or 2. by completing the complaint form available on the home page of the Postal Inspection Service.


[i] http://assembler.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode18/usc_sup_01_18_10_I_20_83.html

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If you arrange to have your mail sent to someone else’s house, is that homeowner responsible for letting you know you have mail waiting?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Doing someone a favor can create a legal obligation under contract law, but only when the favor is repayment for something or when the recipient of the favor has made a promise to do something in exchange for the favor.  So law about doing the favor of receiving mail would generally come from contracts cases.[i] In limited circumstances, the crime of mail theft might apply.[ii]

Undoubtedly, the legal remedy of suing in court comes about too late in problems caused by not finding out whether mail has arrived. If mail containing a big check or a job offer or a housing opportunity has not gotten to the intended recipient, the chance to benefit from that mail content has just been lost and some slow court dispute with the address holder is not going to bring it back.

As in most contract law situations, the way to use the law effectively is to make a good clear agreement in the first place, rather than hoping that the court system will solve anything later. If a homeless person wants an address holder to get his mail to him, he has to make that expectation perfectly clear in the agreement and, ideally, should contribute some effort toward assuring that he gets his mail.
For example, he could promise that he will personally come to that address every Thursday to ask for mail or he could arrange to be available in a particular location every evening in case there is mail that the address holder needs to give him. The address holder also has to make his interests very clear in the agreement. He might want to obligate himself for a limited time only or he might want the homeless person to use his address just for Social Security mailings and nothing else. Certainly, the agreement should detail how the address holder and the homeless person are going to communicate with each other because communication is the primary task involved in getting the mail from one person to another.
Contract law does not require that agreements be written down, but the process of writing down the separate responsibilities and intentions, especially when both parties doing the write together, assures that the address holder and the homeless person both know their own and each other’s obligations. Writing makes it a serious deal, more than just a casual notion. And having the writing enables both parties to point to the document as a reminder to the other if anything starts to go wrong.
If things do go wrong and the parties end-up fighting in court over a failed mail delivery, the written contract will make the court process simpler because the judge won’t have to figure out what promises the parties made to each other. Instead, the court will try to determine whether someone breached the agreement and whether any reparable harm occurred because of that breach.  The court will consider how much of the contract was fulfilled and how the parties interacted up to the point of the breach. The person filing the lawsuit has to state what remedy he is entitled to if he successfully proves a breach.

 

It will be tempting to claim that if the undelivered mail could have led to riches and contentment. The hopes and possibilities that could have ensued from getting the mail (i.e., the income from the job that was advertised in that envelope, the lottery winnings that might have come from using part of the check in that never-given envelope, the bountiful benefits that could have begun by getting into the housing program that was offered in that mail…) cannot be claimed as contract damages. Those possibilities are only guesses. Most of the time, if anything, a court might only order repayment of real losses that can honestly be counted, such as the amount of a check that should have been passed along.


[i] State contract statutes are usually about sales of goods, insurance policies, financial matters, and sometimes employment.

 

[ii] Title 18 US Code Section 1708.

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Is the post office obligated to deliver mail to people who don’t have an address?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

The postal service has always had a way for people without addresses to get their mail. The same system that existed for pioneers in remote homesteads and mining camps that didn’t have street addresses is still in place today: general delivery. General delivery means that the post office will hold onto mail for someone to pick-up when it has been addressed to that person in care of the post office, rather than to the person at a street address.

The law describing the extent and limits of general delivery service is in Section 6.0 of the Domestic Mail Manual which says “general delivery is intended primarily as a temporary means of delivery…for transients and customers not permanently located.”[i] The terms of that section go on to state that general delivery is “available at only one facility under the administration of a multi-facility post office” (i.e. the main post office in town or in the county) and that the general delivery mail will only be held for thirty days.
Clearly, general delivery’s limits on timing and location can make it very difficult for homeless people to collect their mail.

There was an effort by several homeless men in Seattle to get general delivery extended to more convenient branch post offices or to at least obtain post office boxes, but the court determined that their First Amendment right to mail service was satisfied by the one site general delivery rule.[ii] The men’s complaint about not getting post office boxes arose from two rules in the Domestic Mail Manual. One requires that all applicants for P.O. boxes provide a street address in the application for a box.[iii] Since the homeless do not have street addresses, the rule seemed to prevent them from being able to get post office boxes even for a fee.

The Postal Service has an address exception for the homeless though. The exception allows the homeless to show signed photo identification; prove a connection to some social service office, employer or shelter; or be known to a postal clerk or the postmaster.[iv] The Postal Service’s administrative court, which first heard this case, concluded that the men who had signed photo ID’s issued by the homeless shelter had identified themselves well enough to get post office boxes.[v] The federal appeals court upheld that decision by the Administrative Law Judge.[vi]

The second P.O. box rule in this case was about payment for P.O. boxes. The homeless men believed that they should be entitled to free post office box service because their circumstances satisfied the criteria listed in the Free Box Service rule: physical location within the geographic boundaries administered by the post office, location had potential to get delivery service, post office chose not to provide delivery service, and customer didn’t get delivery service.[vii]

The Administrative Law Judge, and later the federal appeals court, held that the free box rule was really meant for people and businesses with fixed locations where the post office simply could not provide delivery services; it was not for transients and people who congregate in places that do not even have fixed addresses.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) submitted a friend of the court brief to the federal appeals court in this case to assert that the Postal Service had a legal obligation to provide all communities with mail service, despite government cost and convenience worries, particularly the homeless population which has such limited access to communication systems and which depends on the mail service to deliver the government’s own unemployment, workers compensation, welfare, disability, and medical assistance checks to them. The heart of their brief was the message that homeless people miss-out on all kinds of basic necessities and dignities largely because they lack addresses and that the Postal Service, by simply allowing free post office boxes or general delivery at their branches, could fix that problem.[viii]


[i] The Domestic Mail Manual is available on the Internet at http://pe.usps.gov/ .

[ii] Currier v. Potter, 379 F.3d 716 (9th Cir. 2004).

[iii] The rule in the Domestic Mail Manual, chapter 508 “Recipient Services” part 4.3.1(a), requires P.O. box applicants to complete Form 1093 http://about.usps.com/forms/ps1093.pdf in which the applicant has to identify himself by name, address, and phone number.

[iv] Postal Buletin 21877 issued September 29, 1994.

[v] In the Matter of the Petitions by Currier, Kerns, and Bar, Postal Service Docket # POB 00-209,00-271, and 00-272, December 29, 2000.

[vi] Currier v. Potter , 379 F.3d 716, 723 (9th Cir. 2004).

[vii] Domestic Mail Manual Chapter 508 “Recipient Services” part 4.6.2 “Free Box Service.” The Domestic Mail Manual is free online at http://pe.usps.gov/.

[viii] Currier v. Henderson, Brief of National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty as Amicus Curiae in Support of Appellants and Reversal, July 10, 2002. This brief is available on the Web at http://www.nlchp.org/content/pubs/Currier%20v%20Postal%20Service1.pdf .

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