Meet the Expert
Mary-Ellen-Peden
Mary Ellen Peden

View Bio

Mary Ellen Peden is a general manager in the hospitality industry in Tennessee. She is a former SNAP Outreach and Advocacy Coordinator, providing application assistance and SNAP education training for partnering organizations and nonprofits in Middle Tennessee. She authored the “2014 Snap Outreach and Advocacy Best Practices Field Guide” on contract with the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

Rebecca-Newman
Rebecca Newman

View Bio

Rebecca Newman, MSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and writer, specializing in eating disorders, anxiety, depression, infertility, substance abuse, grief and loss, gender and sexuality, trauma, and adjustment to life changes. She earned a BA in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and an MSW from the University of Pennsylvania, where she received the John Hope Franklin Award for Combating American Racism. She works as a clinical supervisor and psychotherapist for an academic hospital system in Philadelphia.

Everyone needs a hand sometimes. It’s the father who got laid off as COVID-19 went from potential outbreak to pandemic. It’s the single mom who found a third eviction notice on the front door after just five months in her new place. It’s the veteran who can’t pay his water bill because he can only get part-time hours at the VA hospital. It’s your friend, your neighbor, or even a family member. It’s one in five Americans today.

The goal of public assistance is to provide timely and substantive help to those who need it the most. Affordable housing programs – such as public housing and choice vouchers – help individuals and families locate and keep a stable roof over their heads. And food security programs — like SNAP and WIC — help anyone who’s hungry get a consistent supply of food in their fridges, pantries, and cupboards. That said, public assistance isn’t straightforward. There’s eligibility, application, documentation, and a host of other hurdles that can make the process feel discouraging, even when it doesn’t have to be.

The STEPS guides to public assistance provide key information, expert insight, and step-by-step rundowns of local, state, and federal help programs. Learn what each program entails, who is eligible, how to apply, and what to do once everything has been processed.

Public Assistance Resources by Need

Affordable Housing

If more than 30% of your annual income goes to housing, it’s considered a cost burden. If you’re struggling to pay your mortgage or your rent – or if you’ve found yourself without a place to live at all – see which public housing programs can help you get back on your feet.

Bill & Utility Assistance

When the rent is due and you need to eat, sometimes the utilities don’t get paid. Water and electricity bills can be a burden when times are tough. Learn about local, state, and federal programs that can help you pay your utility bills without stressing over a potential shut off.

Child Care Assistance

It can be hard to hold down a steady job when you have children to take care of. And if you don’t have friends or relatives to help you, it can be even harder. The good news is, child care assistance programs can provide that help, and make it easier for working parents to earn a living without sacrificing the health and wellness of their kids. Learn about the top child care assistance programs in your area.

Food Security

Including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and food stamps, Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the National School Lunch Program, food security assistance programs are available to individuals and groups in hard times. Learn how each program works and what you need to do to qualify and get started quickly.

Unemployment, Job Placement & Training

If you’ve lost your job, need to develop your work skills, or need job search assistance, there are several public assistance programs available to you. The Dislocated Workers Program for those who have been laid off or terminated can offer you transition assistance to locate or qualify for a new job. Read about unemployment help, job placement programs, and education and training assistance today.

blue-quote

Public assistance changed my life by feeding my family when I wasn’t able to on my own.

– Mary Ellen

blue-quote

Obtain all the information you can prior to applying, and ask for help along the way. Your local agency does want to help you receive aid and benefits.

– Rebecca

Do You Need Assistance? Self Q&A

How do you know if you’re a good candidate for public assistance? Sometimes we get so overwhelmed and caught up in our challenges that we lose sight of the fact that real help is within reach. Consider asking yourself the following questions to see how your responses stack up.

Have you missed more than one bill payment in the last 30 days?

Missing a bill payment can trap you in a loop of penalties, interest, and debt collection. These work to increase the overall amount of money you owe, and therefore make it tougher to surface from the mounting debt. The sooner you can get help with your bills, the more you can save.

Have you been forced to move more than once in the last 12 months?

Have you struggled to find someone to watch your kids so you can go to work?

Do you frequently find that, after paying your bills and other necessary expenses, that you have very little to no money left to buy groceries?

Have you unexpectedly lost your job and are having difficulty locating steady employment to replace it? Or are you now injured or ill and can’t work as a result?

Whom to Contact if You Need Help

The STEPS guides should have plenty of information about your specific need, whether it’s related to housing, food, bills, child care, or work. But sometimes it helps to talk to a real person. Someone who actively works with people in your area to get them the help they need when they need it the most. If you’d like to speak to someone about assistance for yourself and/or your family, start here:

City or County Social Services

You can also search for resources offered by your city or county. Depending on your location, you may be able to find programs that help the community with food, housing, sobriety, and other needs. Washoe County in Nevada, for example, offers a variety of assistance services including housing programs for homeless individuals and families, burial and cremation cost assistance, and financial assistance for persons placed in extended care facilities. Davidson County in Tennessee provides similar services, including life skills training to advance family stability. Metro Services offers case management professionals to help residents find both housing and jobs.

Thankfully you can find all of these city and county services through the metro council in your area. Most of the time they can be contacted by phone, in-person, or online. You may also find that your city or county offers quick-dial services. Washoe County, for example, allows residents to dial 311 to contact professionals in all non-emergency services in the area.

State Service Agencies

State service agencies can also provide you with assistance and supportive programs in times of need. State-specific offerings typically include welfare, medical assistance, child support, and employment services. It is best to contact your state’s department of health and human services, or the equivalent entity in your area, to get a full list of services.

The state of Nevada, for example, offers childcare and support services, child support payment assistance, energy and medical bill assistance, SNAP, and temporary financial assistance for needy families (TANF). In Tennessee, the equivalent department goes by simply the Department of Human Services. Residents in TN can find state-funded housing programs, vocational rehabilitation services, adult daycare programs, and more through the department’s site. A general google search for your state’s agency directory or a phone call to its human services department can get you on the right track in no time.

Expert Panel on Public Assistance

Mary-Ellen-Peden

Mary Ellen Peden

Mary Ellen Peden is a general manager in the hospitality industry in Tennessee. She is a former SNAP Outreach and Advocacy Coordinator, providing application assistance and SNAP education training for partnering organizations and nonprofits in Middle Tennessee. She authored the “2014 Snap Outreach and Advocacy Best Practices Field Guide” on contract with the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

USER

Kate

Anonymous contributor and college student with experience applying for and receiving public assistance.

Rebecca-Newman

Rebecca Newman

Rebecca Newman, MSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and writer, specializing in eating disorders, anxiety, depression, infertility, substance abuse, grief and loss, gender and sexuality, trauma, and adjustment to life changes. She earned a BA in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and an MSW from the University of Pennsylvania, where she received the John Hope Franklin Award for Combating American Racism. She works as a clinical supervisor and psychotherapist for an academic hospital system in Philadelphia.

What’s one thing everyone should know before they apply for public assistance?

Mary-Ellen-Peden

Mary Ellen Peden

The application process is often long. Most public assistance programs require proof of identity, often proof of residence, and some programs require proof of work, income, utility payments, and even bank statements. Gathering the needed documentation can be complicated, and submitting this information often must be done in-person. It can take a considerable effort to qualify for public assistance, and then to maintain it. The good news is that some emergency assistance programs will honor the application date and you may be eligible to receive benefits retroactively to that date. Don’t give up!

USER

Kate

You should know that most of the time, this process requires PATIENCE. The system can be really complex and tough to understand, but it is worth it to push through. While it might seem overwhelming, it is important to remember that you are your best advocate. If you stay patient and persistent in finding someone to help you navigate the available resources, you can find them! Tell the truth about your situation, don’t give up, and always fight for yourself. The resources are out there, it just might take some work to find them.

Rebecca-Newman

Rebecca Newman

Before applying for public assistance, it is important to understand that your local assistance body makes determinations of support based on municipal or state standards of need. Disability status, dependents, income, and expenses all play a role in the way that resources are allocated to an individual or family in need. While your personal circumstances may exceed the level of benefits for which you are eligible, the determination is based on the information you provide, sadly not on the opinion of any public assistance worker to make a determination.

What’s the first thing a person should do when they receive their benefits?

If a person is denied the benefits they need, what’s the best next step?

What can an applicant do to ensure that the process moves along, or put their best foot forward, and avoid denial periods?

Based on your experience applying for or receiving public assistance, or your time helping or advising others to apply, what’s one surprising element that you discovered or learned?