Ruth Callejas, a U.S. Air Force veteran, moved from Virginia to Baltimore in the beginning of 2012 because she heard that Baltimore City had better long-term services for homeless veterans. Two and a half years later, Callejas is taking out a mortgage to purchase her first home in Virginia, where she will be reunited with her daughter and three grandchildren. She is training herself on web design and development, and dreams of starting her own blog on services for veterans.
But the past two and a half years have not been easy. Callejas was connected with HPRP in 2012, after she had been interviewed by the Baltimore Sun about being homeless and living in poverty. The article talked about how she was living at a homeless shelter in Baltimore City and only receiving $185 per month in Temporary Disability Assistance Program (TDAP). Callejas had applied for both veterans benefits and Social Security Disability Insurance, but both of her applications had been denied.
“The day after that article came out, I received a call from someone who said I’m a lawyer and help homeless people free of charge,” Callejas recalled. “Those words caught my attention.” HPRP offered to assist her in appealing her claim for benefits. “When you’re homeless, sometimes you think this is the way it is going to be for the rest of my life,” she said. “Part of me felt that I shouldn’t get the benefits, since I was never in war. I also didn’t want to receive government handouts. But HPRP explained that I am entitled to the benefits because of my service, and I had paid into the system all the years I worked. The fact that someone stepped up and said ‘we can help you’ really impressed me. I was convinced to pursue it.”
Through her own advocacy and the help of HPRP, Callejas now receives VA disability and Social Security Disability Insurance. She also received a significant back award for the benefits that she would have received had the VA and SSA approved her applications when she initially applied. This income allowed her to move into a one-bedroom apartment in 2013. “The first night I stayed in my apartment – which had no furniture except six blankets and a blow-up cushion – I walked around smiling, saying it’s mine, it’s mine!” she recalled.
Although a judge issued an order in 2013 ruling that she was entitled to Social Security benefits, she still hasn’t received the full amount she was awarded. But that all changed this week, when Michelle Salomon, her HPRP attorney, and Callejas went to the Social Security Administration in person to demand the final check. After a three-hour meeting with several different people, SSA finally agreed to release the full and final amount.
After the meeting, Callejas told Michelle how this income has changed her life. “There’s no better feeling a person can get than when they’ve helped someone else,” she said. “After I got my first check, one of the greatest things in the world was being able to walk up to a man standing near my house holding a sign that said ‘homeless.’ I handed him a $20 bill and he said, ‘Bless you so much.’ I told him, ‘Don’t worry, less than two years ago, I was sitting right where you are standing. It does happen.’”
[Blog post by Ruth Callejas and Michelle Salomon]