Down and Out in Miami-Dade County

Poor, unemployed, stricken with AIDS, and at the mercy of government bureaucrats. No wonder Vivian Rolon's life is hell.

In February 1996 Linda Kupersmith, an administrative law judge, heard Rolon's second SSI appeal, to which Rolon brought reports from physicians and psychiatrists and answered what she describes as a barrage of questions from Kupersmith about her eyesight and mental state. After a hearing the judge usually decides within 45 days whether to grant or deny the claim. That didn't happen in Rolon's case. Judge Kupersmith held off making any decision while Social Security staffers attempted to update Rolon's medical condition by scheduling medical consultations for her, according to John Raffa, Miami-area spokesman for the Social Security Administration.

Months and years went by, and the workers continued to make medical appointments and mail notices to Rolon, but she missed every exam. She says she never received the notices. If Rolon hadn't been an AIDS patient, Raffa says, her case would have been closed years ago for "noncompliance." But Social Security regulations prohibit closing out the files of AIDS victims even if there is no contact with the applicant. So Rolon's claim, unbeknownst to her, was stuck in a sort of SSI purgatory.

This was despite Rolon's contention that she or her son or one of her daughters visited Miami's downtown Social Security office on many occasions trying to learn the status of her claim. "They always told us the same thing," she recollects. "That the judge had not reviewed my case yet and we had to wait on the judge.

"There was one time I think about a year ago when I was in a catatonic state," Rolon goes on. "I wasn't eating or talking, I couldn't move, and Carlos got so upset he brought me down there. That was the day they told him they were missing my psychiatric record. That day he went to my psychiatrist and told him he needed him to please copy every page of my file even if he had to do it himself. My psychiatrist did, and my son went down there again with my file, along with the psychiatrist's business card, and handed it over to a Ms. Knight. Then we never heard anything after that."

In the summer of 1997, Rolon found a two-bedroom apartment on NE 26th Street. She'd been looking for a larger place ever since Carlos had moved in with her several months earlier. Rent on the two-bedroom was $625 per month, though, and Rolon didn't qualify for more than $500 per month from HOPWA. Carlos had recently quit his job at Wendy's, a move for which his mother takes responsibility: He'd gotten sick, she says, and his boss wouldn't allow him to cut back on his hours. "I was watching him slowly break down and I knew it was because of me," she says tearfully.

Despite the expense of the new apartment, Rolon thought she'd be hearing from SSI any day. And she says her boss at PWAC promised to pay the difference in rent and help with utilities until the SSI checks arrived. One of her daughters drove her to the Miami-Dade Office of Community Services (OCS) on NW 79th Street to sign the HOPWA lease. But before her caseworker would fill out the paperwork, he insisted that Rolon locate someone to vouch for the $125 per month HOPWA wasn't going to cover. So her daughter signed a paper promising to be responsible, even though she was about to move to New York.

Things went badly almost from the minute the lease was signed. After only a few weeks in her new apartment, Rolon was forced out of PWAC. Among other indignities, she was also accused of drug-dealing, along with her son, who sometimes helped her in the office. At the time PWAC was in more turmoil than usual; employees and volunteers were leaving, clients were complaining. In any case promises to help Rolon with her rent were off.

She says she got some money together to put down a security deposit and one $125 payment of her portion of the rent. After that, though, Rolon acknowledges that neither she nor anyone else paid the landlord the difference in rent. But the apartment was occupied, and the landlord, prominent Miami property owner and community activist Monique Taylor, was receiving a steady $500 per month from HOPWA, so Taylor decided she wouldn't pressure Rolon for her portion. "I just let it be," Taylor recalls. "It would have been far more difficult to see a woman in her condition homeless."

After Rolon left PWAC, she began working for a friend who was a heroin dealer. She helped him bag his merchandise for sale, she says, and he let her shoot up some of the smack. "I was in pain with these bone aches, and heroin kills pain," she explains. "It was just a mistake that lasted two months." Rolon becomes evasive on the subject of her drug use; she admits to having played around with different drugs, including heroin, when she lived in New York, but never getting serious about any of them. She insists she was clean in Miami (although for a time she was a heavy Percocet user) until she fell in with her dealer friend. It didn't take long for son Carlos to figure out what was going on, but he never confronted her.

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