Improving the District Approach to Benefits Connections: A more targeted partnership around SOAR

The District has a new approach to ensuring that clients experiencing homelessness have access to the vital benefits they are entitled to.

Using lessons learned from community stakeholders, the Department of Human Services (DHS) is adapting and expanding the use of the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) / Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Outreach, Access, and Recovery (SOAR) model. SOAR is a highly regarded approach to connecting vulnerable populations to SSI/SSDI benefits. Starting this fall, the District will employ a pay-for-performance approach to funding SOAR advocacy efforts to enhance the efficiency and reach of the program in the District.

Importance of SSI/SSDI to the community

The SSI and SSDI programs are crucial elements of the social safety net for people with chronic illness. These two federally funded programs provide and supplement income for people who cannot work due to a medical disability. SSI serves those who have never been able to work because of a disability and SSDI serves those who have worked throughout their life but can no longer work because of a physical or mental impairment. The ultimate goal of both programs is to provide income for eligible individuals who truly need it.

Challenges with accessing services

Unfortunately, the application process for these programs can be extremely burdensome and understandably complicated. In addition to submitting a complete medical history, applying for SSI/SSDI requires comprehensive information including proof of employment, proof of residence, and residential history. This documentation can be difficult to collect even when homelessness and/or mental disabilities are not complicating factors.

The implications are significant: in 2017, only 28% of those who apply for SSI/SSDI without SOAR advocacy gained approval upon their initial application. Approval is even less likely (12%) for individuals experiencing or at-risk of homelessness when trying to apply for the first time without SOAR support. This issue is compounded when inexperienced applicants submit applications with missing forms or paperwork that contains errors.

Not only are approval rates low in the absence of SOAR advocacy, the application determination process can take more than a year.

This bar graph details national average approval rates using the SOAR model and national approval rates without SOAR. Source:

Bar graph details the national approval average when the SOAR model is applied vs. the national approval average not using SOAR. Source: U.S. Department of Verterans Affairs.

SOAR Model: What we know works

Developed to address low initial approval rates, the SOAR model links trained and certified advocates with individuals who qualify for SSI/SSDI benefits. Each advocate is empowered to collect the required documentation and works in tandem with representatives from the Social Security Administration and the Disability Determination Service to ensure applications are complete and thorough.

When the SOAR model is applied, the outcomes are very different. Last year in the District, initial applications took around three months and had a 73% initial application approval rate.

Rethinking the District’s approach

Currently there is no dedicated source of federal funding for SOAR. Yet all fifty states plus the District have developed SOAR approaches that align with their capacity and needs. In 2016, the District started a pilot SOAR program with funding from DHS. Along with stakeholders and partners, DHS reviewed the impact of the first two years of the pilot and saw clear empirical evidence that the model was working. Areas for improvement were also noted, including the need to more precisely prioritize clients and scale operational efficiency. The results were summarized in a recent D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute blog post that made the case for extending and enhancing SOAR funding.

Based on the pilot lessons learned and broad community consensus about the benefits of the SOAR model, DHS resolved to expand the program to help even more residents.

In April of 2018, DHS announced a $500,000 solicitation that leverages a pay-for-performance approach to funding SOAR advocacy. DHS believes this model will enable funding to benefit more eligible District residents while empowering the SOAR advocacy community. Onboarding funds will be given to providers so they can expand their SOAR operation, and federal funds residents receive will free up local dollars. Those local dollars can then be used to reinvest in the SOAR program.

The new SOAR program will begin in September of this year. For more information on the SOAR model and community please visit the District’s SOAR Leadership Team’s website.

About the author:
David Smart is a District Leadership Program (DLP) Intern at DHS. He is currently getting a Master of Public Policy degree at George Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government.