‘It’s like having another job’ - poverty assistance programs complicated to navigate during pandemic

Oct 8, 2021

Photo courtesy: Rain Chamberlain

Rain Chamberlain, who identifies with the pronoun they/them, lives in a small stucco home in Fresno with their child and a roommate. Chamberlain’s workspace is tucked into a corner of the living room.  

“This is my desk area over here,” they say as they sit at the desk and begin a usual routine, signing into one of several government websites they use to access assistance programs. 

“So if I were to go to 'My Benefits Calwin’,” they say, waiting for the page to load.

“Oh hey, guess what. The internet decided it wasn't there,” Chamberlain says with a laugh.

It takes at least a minute to reconnect the laptop to Wi-Fi.

“It does this a lot,” Chamberlain says, focusing on the screen.

It takes another 30 seconds for the website to load. 

“And a lot of times I'll be mutl-tasking. I'll be working in other tabs while I'm waiting for this stuff to load,” Chamberlain says. 

Chamberlain writes grants for nonprofits, including one they just started on their own.

“You know, it's not there yet, but it's getting close. It’s getting to the point where I’m working pretty much full time,” they say.

Rain Chamberlain logs into their DSS Pass website for Fresno County.

Chamberlain, who’s a single parent, also recently started taking classes online. But Chamberlain says one of the most time consuming and stressful parts of their routine is staying current with the government assistance programs that help them get by. 

“Housing authority, welfare, department of rehab, the phone and internet benefit,” Chamberlain says, referring lastly to the California LifeLine program. 

Right now, they rely on four assistance programs and have applied for a fifth - utility assistance from the Fresno Emergency Rental Assistance Program. 

Chamberlain is disabled and sometimes uses a wheelchair. And once COVID hit, their household lost work and income.

“Living in poverty usually means multi-tasking eight different crises simultaneously,” Chamberlain says.

It’s like having another job to maintain program benefits.

“So there's this expectation that from 7 a.m. until at least 6 p.m., that you've got to be available for any random phone call, any random text, any random email,” Chamberlain says.

They say they spend anywhere from 10 to 60 hours a month staying up to date with all the programs. They say a lot of the skills needed are financial.

“Bank statements and paypal records and everything to show all my itemized income,” Chamberlain says. 

Chamberlain goes through a stack of papers in a bin. There are 12 bins for each month of last year. Chamberlain says this helped them sort through the paperwork to re-apply for the housing authority voucher, which is critical in keeping down the cost of their monthly rent. 

“I have to be the one to sit there and professionally make sure everything adds up,” Chamberlain says rustling through the papers.

Chamberlain says it took about 60 hours over a period of three months to get through this application. Before COVID, recipients could schedule appointments for help filling out forms. But that all changed very suddenly.

“Even the offices that they're still there, even if the workers themselves are still going to work every day, that doesn't mean the recipients can go in,” Chamberlain says. 

They say it can be a discouraging process for some of the most vulnerable populations to navigate, especially when reliable internet access and oftentimes a printer or scanner is needed.

“People who have been disenfranchised, who have multiple marginalizations, all of these different things are absolutely having to participate in these programs. And the punishment, the quite literal punishment if you don't, is homelessness and frequently death,” Chamberlain says. 

It’s why Chamberlain started a non-profit. It’s called Navigating Structures and now has 501c3 status.

“It is by and for people that fit into the intersection of being both disabled and either chronically homeless or chronically at risk of homelessness,” Chamberlain says.

It was designed from Chamberlain’s own experiences in and out of homelessness. The goal is to build a stronger community by paying unhoused people to work on their own passions, whether it’s fixing bikes or cooking. Right now, Chamberlain is still searching for grants to fund the organization.

“We can have the time and the energy to really invest in our community, not have to worry about where that next paycheck is coming from,” Chamberlain says. 

Although Chamberlain isn’t making any money yet in this phase of the non-profit, they hope the effort pays dividends in the future.