Memories of a Public Aid Experience from 2010
Applying For Illinois Public Aid – What an Adventure
In a fit of desperation, I went to the Illinois Public Aid’s website to apply for benefits – cash assistance, medical, food stamps, whatever I could get. I’d been severely underemployed/unemployed since the beginning of the year and the bills were piling up. It took me a while to find the website but once I did, it was easy enough to navigate the website and complete the application.
About a week later I received a phone call to schedule an appointment to come to my local office. I scheduled the appointment for the following week. The person I spoke with advised me that I’d receive a confirmation letter with a list of the items I needed to bring to the appointment: valid identification, check stubs, medical records, rent receipts, bank statements, etc. It took me almost a week to gather up all the paperwork and print/copy what I needed.
My appointment was at 9:30am on a Tuesday and I arrived at precisely that time. What an adventure – one their website doesn’t tell you to prepare for!
Appointment? What’s an Appointment?
On arrival, take a number and wait to be called for check-in. (So what’s the point of having a scheduled appointment?)
You MUST take a seat in the waiting room! Standing is absolutely not allowed and there are 1-2 security guards patrolling the area to ensure that everyone is seated unless you’re reading something posted on one of the bulletin boards.
There were plenty of (uncomfortable, molded-plastic) chairs, arranged in 2 groups of about 30 each, in rows facing a large aisle. So while you’re sitting, you can view all the folks on the other side of the room, waiting their turn. I had the additional pleasure of overhearing a conversation behind me, between two men discussing their common experience of being recently incarcerated at the same facility. (Ignore, ignore, ignore.) Another highlight was listening to the girl sitting next to me, ranting loudly to her boyfriend about how she’d been waiting 2+ hours for her number to be called. Though she was very loud and explosive, I lost track of her somehow. I don’t know if she left out of frustration or if she was finally called for her interview.
Waiting, Waiting, and More Waiting
It took at least 30 minutes before my number was called to officially check in. While I waited and before I realized that standing was a no-no, I walked around and perused the contents of the bulletin boards. I must have paused too long in one spot, so one of the Room Monitor/Security Guards advised me to take a seat. How could I refuse? I couldn’t go outside for some air or a smoke for fear of missing my turn. I went back to my seat and waited.
Finally at 10:00am, my number was called. I went up to the Reception/Check-in counter. It was only then that I was asked to show the confirmation letter I’d received, and asked if I had an appointment. The person at counter was new and had to be coached by a nearby co-worker on how to assign me to a caseworker using their computer system. That task completed, I was instructed to return to the waiting area until my name was called. (Woo-hoo! I moved up from being just a number to someone with a name!)
In the few minutes I spent checking in, I lost my original seat and had to find another. (Musical chairs, anyone?) The one I found was on the opposite side of the room. When I sat down, I didn’t realize that I’d sat right in front a woman with a couple of little kids. Almost as soon as I sat down, the baby started screaming and the toddler started whining. Earphones might have been a solution, but then you might not hear your name when called. And again, you don’t want to leave the waiting room for fear of not hearing your name when called. The torture continued for at least 45 minutes until the kids’ mother was called for her interview with a caseworker.
As the wait continued, I became aware of another waiting-room rule: no cell phone use. Too bad if you’re on a waiting list for an organ transplant, or if there is some emergency that you need to be notified about. You’ll be advised to go outside to take the call. And of course, you might lose your place in line/miss your turn if you’re outside too long. But one doesn’t know how long “too long” is.
My total wait time from official check-in to being called for my interview with a caseworker was close to 90 minutes. TIP: Bring something to read (“War and Peace”, any 2-inch thick novel, several thick magazines, etc.) unless you enjoy discreet people-watching. The magazine I’d brought wasn’t nearly thick enough so I ended up people-watching others in the waiting room and the staff (receptionists and caseworkers). Interesting. No real standouts, but I wondered about the back-story on many of the staff and applicants that I observed.
Although there were 2-3 long tables to sit at, you’re not allowed to sit at them unless you are actually filling out an application for aid. Kind of a Catch-22: If you’re not filling out an application and there are no empty/available chairs in the main waiting area and standing is not allowed, what are you to do? The situation didn’t come up while I was there so I don’t know the answer.
TIP: Dress down or stand out like a sore thumb! If you dress too well, your waiting room seatmates and the staff might think you don’t even need any public aid benefits. (But why else would you be there if you didn’t need them?)
Your Caseworker Will See You Now
I was finally called to meet with a caseworker at 11:30am – 2 hours later than my scheduled “appointment”. The caseworker was very nice (some of the others I’d observed during their interviews with applicants were almost surly.) She reviewed my paperwork and interviewed me about my circumstances. She kindly informed me that I would certainly not be considered for cash assistance or medical benefits because I still have some funds available from a retirement savings account and because I was not under a doctor’s care nor on medication. She did say that I might qualify for food stamps and had me sign the paperwork for that. By 12:00pm, she was done with me and ended the interview.
After being there for 2 and half hours, I desperately needed a potty break so I stopped at the restroom on my way out. Thankfully, it was clean. But I was really happy that I had several sheets of Kleenex in my purse because there was no paper in the stall and no hand towels at the sink. TIP: Bring your own, just in case!
Two weeks after the interview, I still had not received any notification of their decision on whether or not I would at least receive the food benefits. Two more weeks passed and still no word. I don’t know how dire one’s situation has to be, or if it matters. After a month, I finally did get a decision letter. That’s fodder for my next article!