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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 15.0° F  Fair
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Working in the Survival Business

The woman sitting across the table fidgets in the cramped conference room. She glances out the window as another train howls through Madison's east side.

"This is a hard time of year for me," she says.

In front of us sits the paperwork for appealing the denial of her Social Security Disability benefits. I write her Social Security number at the top of the page. "It is getting colder," I say.

"My son disappeared in November," she tells me. "Just before Thanksgiving. That was three years ago."

I look up. She is still staring out the window. She is a stocky woman in her late fifties, the survivor of childhood abuse and a lifetime of poverty and bad luck. She has lost a daughter to drug addiction and a son to severe mental illness. I am worried about her losing anything else.

When she turns, she smiles thinly and taps the stack of paper. "That's why I'm doing this," she tells me. "It's why I quit drinking. I want everything to be right when he comes back."

Until recently, I worked as a benefits counselor for a nonprofit agency in Madison. Basically, I helped people find affordable ways to access health care, food, housing, energy and home care services.

As a friend of mine put it, I was in the Survival Business. When you need a doctor and you can't work; when the rent needs to be paid and you have no money; when the lights are shut off and you can't buy food -- that was where I was supposed to come in.

The stories are hard. A married couple struck down by major health issues, forced to sell their wedding rings to pay the bills. A professional horse trainer with a debilitating back injury, now homeless and unable to walk more than a few feet. A young man with chronic mental health issues denied Social Security Disability seven times.

I heard a lot of anger -- at the system, at fate, at God -- and a lot of desperation. People would look to me for hope. They'd say, "So there's a pretty good chance someone like me can get this, right? I mean, you see how I am."

I learned to temper my responses; I know well the danger of raised expectations. I hated to tell them it could be months -- or years -- before they'd know if any assistance would come through.

The public benefits system is vast and it's easy for people to get lost. Applications are denied because of simple mistakes like misplaced forms or incorrect financial reporting. Even the most straightforward request might take a week of phone calls and letters.

"How come the banks got billions of dollars," one woman asked me, "and I can't get a cent?"

The job is frustrating, and it's intense. And sometimes, it's just too much. That's why I had to quit, to take a break from the heartbreak and the red tape. It's too easy, sometimes, to see the whole world as coming apart.

I am 25 years old; I belong to a generation of uncertainty and debt, of college loans and part-time jobs, of living a day at a time. I have enough hopelessness of my own. I could be a client of the Survival Business myself.

Still, there is something about this work that is incredibly rewarding, that fights against hopelessness tooth and nail. It has something to do, I think, with telling stories.

Desperation begets a kind of brutal honesty. There's no room for hesitation. The people I worked with were living through something unthinkable. Even when the system couldn't help them, they were grateful, I think, just to have someone to listen. Putting the situation into words made it manageable and gave them strength, so that even when my efforts failed, they were desperate to keep the story going.

"Okay," they said. "What do we try next?"

And that is the beautiful thing about the Survival Business. Despite its flaws, there's almost always another step, another angle, another Hail Mary leap that might carry you to the other side. If I take anything from this job, it's that the world is capable of terrible things, but people -- even when exhausted -- may be capable of more.

Marysa LaRowe, a native of Illinois, is a writer living on Madison's east side.

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