Nearly 1,000 disabled and low-income clients of Safety Net of Oregon are wondering how they will receive disability benefits now that the company is under federal investigation. The nonprofit organization, which provides money-management services to individuals receiving federal disability benefits, was served with a federal search warrant on Thursday March 6. Carla Meredith, resident agent in charge for the Office of the Inspector General for the Social Security Administration, told Street Roots that the warrant was based on allegations that Safety Net was mismanaging clients’ funds. Speaking outside of the nonprofit organization’s office on Morrison Street in inner Southeast Portland, Meredith said Safety Net managed the funds for nearly 1,000 people receiving assistance. Agents took computers and will also be looking at records for any signs of malfeasance, she said.
The federal government operates two programs, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSD), that provide cash benefits to individuals who are prevented from working as a result of a disability. There are 81,000 people in Oregon receiving SSI, a program for individuals who have limited resources. For SSD, which is for people who have a work history, that number is 120,000.
Individuals who qualify for benefits but are deemed incapable of managing their own money are assigned a “payee.” The payee has control over the benefit money and is entrusted with making sure that it’s used to cover the basic needs of the recipient. Often the payee is a family member or close friend. Organizations, such as Safety Net, serve as payees for individuals who don’t have the option of using friends or family.
“On April 01, 2014 Safety Net of Oregon will close our doors for good,” reads a sign taped to the cracked window on the organization’s office. The sign also advises clients to get in touch with the Social Security Administration to find another payee. “Thanks for the memories,” the sign concludes. Another sign written on a yellow legal pad and taped to the door simply reads, “closed.”
Safety Net has been Charles Vaughan’s payee since last summer, which he says is “way too long.” Vaughan, who has bad ankles and speaks in a heavy Alabama drawl, says that he’s had trouble getting part of his $721 monthly disability check from Safety Net to see a dentist and an optometrist, neither of which he ended up seeing. He says he just wants to get square with Safety Net and try to move back to Alabama. But in the meantime there is pressing problem of getting a new payee.
“I don’t know what to do about that,” he says.
Meredith said that Safety Net can still process payments for rent, medical and other needs of disability recipients but will cease beginning April.
Street Roots was unable to reach Safety Net for comment.
Safety Net’s 2012 tax forms, the most recent publicly available, states that it had $689,987 in revenue and was running a deficit of $2,486.
According to records on the Oregon attorney general’s website, Safety Net has had five consumer complaints lodged against it. All the records state that the problems were voluntarily resolved, the consumer was pursuing their own solution or there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove that Safety Net violated the law.
In Portland, Safety Net does not have the best reputation with individuals and organizations who serve recipients of federal disability benefits.
“I’ve had a number of clients who have had Safety Net as their representative payee, and they are universally unhappy with the response they’ve been getting and believe they have a hard time getting their money from Safety Net,” says George Wall, an attorney who helps disabled people qualify for benefits. Wall says that when he has had a choice, he has steered clients away from using Safety Net as their payee.
Patricia Kepler, an independent living specialist at Independent Living Resources, a nonprofit organization that helps individuals with disabilities, says that she has clients being served by Safety Net and many of them are unsure how they will access their money and are panicked over the situation. Kepler says there are only five payee organizations in Oregon and the service is in high demand.
“I can tell you that a large number of our consumers are on various payee systems, and all of them have their weak moments and I’ve received complaints from all of them,” she says. “But most of them, that I’m aware of, come from Safety Net.”