Thomas Ptacek: Why I am no longer homeless

Roughly six months ago, Luisa Deprez wrote about me in a BDN column and how the loss of MaineCare might affect me. As she mentioned, I had at one point been homeless and had spent the previous three years leading advocacy efforts with a group called Homeless Voices for Justice, which is supported by Preble Street in Portland.

Just over a month ago, I was hired by Preble Street to fill the new veteran’s health care outreach community organizer position. I now have health insurance provided by my employer, and that weight has been lifted off my shoulders.

But it’s worth looking at how I got to this point. What exactly was involved in getting me from my year of homelessness back to full-time employment? It was the safety net created by a variety of services that, when allowed to work together, helped me and can help other people return to a life of normalcy.

There were three major pieces that facilitated my return to full-time employment. The first was my Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit. SNAP allowed me to maintain some semblance of normalcy in my life. Going to the grocery store, choosing what to buy, cooking at home – that feels normal. Standing in line in the freezing cold, waiting for a meal, is not normal. Having control over my diet helped me feel successful. That success, that movement forward, propelled me, in part, to where I am today.

The second major piece was mental health care. I don’t have a diagnosed mental illness, but a year in the shelter resulted in anxiety and depression. Access to mental health care is what helped me to feel ready for the move back to where I once was. Make no mistake, this felt like a big risk. A failure, in my mind, would have pushed me back so far that a return to depression and homelessness looked inevitable.

Knowing how important one’s mental health is when life includes the struggles that come with living in poverty is why I’m so concerned about the future of MaineCare.

People often forget the critical role MaineCare has in providing treatment to the disabled or elderly. They forget mental health services are covered by MaineCare. Without expansion, I wonder how many thousands of Mainers will be denied vital help for the recovery and maintenance of their lives.

In my first month as the veteran’s health care outreach community organizer, I have learned a lot about health insurance and the Affordable Care Act. I’ve seen how relieved and happy some people are when they find out they might be able to afford good health care.

But not everyone can. Many people earning less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level aren’t eligible for subsidies in the new marketplace. Those earning just above the poverty level may be eligible for subsidies but would find monthly premiums and other cost sharing, deductibles and copays too expensive.

MaineCare was supposed to provide the coverage for these people. That’s how the Affordable Care Act is designed to work. Each piece covers the segment of the population it’s meant to. If one piece isn’t in place, that segment of the population doesn’t have access to health care.

I cannot stress enough how important it was to me to be able to maintain some sort of connection to society and the world around me. I lost that when I became homeless, and that is when I truly became depressed. That connection is the third piece of the supportive puzzle that allowed me to get my life back.

For me, my time with Homeless Voices for Justice and Preble Street in general was invaluable in creating that connection. Reconnecting with the world around me helped me take more control over my life.

It’s no coincidence that it happened roughly six months after accessing a mental health provider. Everyone deserves the opportunity to be supported the way I was. But for many who don’t have health care, this is an opportunity they won’t have.

As we debate the value of programs like SNAP, general assistance and MaineCare, I would like to point out that without this type of support I would not be succeeding. I wouldn’t be at a point where I no longer need my SNAP benefit. I would not have been able to buy a car, or been able to register that car, or even been able to buy gas for the car. Not only do I benefit, local businesses do as well.

I can also pay taxes. Seriously, I love paying taxes. I can contribute to the services that helped me get to where I am today so others can, too.

Once homeless, Thomas Ptacek is now veteran’s health care outreach community organizer at Preble Street in Portland.