‘I Felt Like A Caveman’ — How Work Requirements For State Benefits Hurt One Maine Man

There was a time when Tim Keefe was so hungry he ate a squirrel.

“I felt like a primitive human being. I felt like a caveman, I really did. And that’s not the first time in this whole thing I felt like a caveman,” he says.

Keefe was homeless at the time. He lost his job, and his apartment, after he got a work injury in 2014.

“I was working in heavy industry and was using pneumatic wrench, it caught up and twisted my wrist and popped the cartilage right out of there. I was done, my hand malfunctioned. It hasn’t worked the same since,” he says.

Keefe hasn’t been able to work either. He applied for food stamps, now known as SNAP benefits, and got about $180 a month.

“It was great, to be able to afford at least two meals a day,” he says.

After three months, Keefe was required to work or volunteer about 20 hours a week to continue to receive SNAP. But he says the Department of Labor determined he couldn’t because of his injury.

Keefe says he then went to the Department of Health and Human Services.

“I ask to volunteer, they didn’t feel comfortable sending me into a volunteer position,” he says.

Keefe says despite his injury, he lost his benefits because he couldn’t fulfill the work requirement. The Department of Labor says those who can’t work because of a disability can enroll in vocational rehab to keep their SNAP benefits — Keefe says he tried, but wasn’t considered eligible.

“We see many, many, many people who fall through the cracks,” says Chris Hastedt, public policy director at Maine Equal Justice Partners.

Hastedt says it’s not uncommon for people to lose their SNAP benefits because they have difficulty verifying their medical conditions.

“And that’s simply because they don’t have medical insurance, they don’t have a doctor that they can go to, to say, ‘Please verify the fact that I’m not able to work right now,’” she says.

Hastedt says others are unable to work or volunteer because they live in rural areas and don’t have transportation. On top of that, she says volunteer opportunities aren’t widely available because many organizations don’t have the staff to supervise them.

Hastedt estimates that the work requirement has resulted in thousands of Mainers losing SNAP benefits.

“I don’t think of it as a work requirement, I think of it more as a penalty for not being able to find a job, no matter what your circumstances are,” she says.

No one from the Department of Health and Human Services was available to be interviewed for this story. But a report last year from the Office of Policy and Management has been cited as evidence of the work requirement’s success.

The report found that those who lost SNAP benefits because of the work requirement saw their wages increase more than 114 percent in the following year. But James Myall of the Maine Center for Economic Policy says the report is flawed.

“For example, it shows some increased earnings for the group as whole, but ignores the fact that wages for all Mainers increased during that period as well,” he says.

Myall says national studies have found that work requirements usually don’t function as incentives, because they don’t account for other barriers people face in finding jobs. Instead, he says, these policies take away support, like food, when people need it most.

“It really needs to be more a support role, and less of a punitive approach,” he says.

Some Mainers have fared well with the work requirement, like 36-year-old Jim Letteney of Pittston.

Letteney applied for SNAP last year after losing his job. It took a few months for the benefits to kick in. By then, he’d found another job. But because he’d applied for help, he got a call from a Career Center advisor.

“She called me and wanted to see if I was interested in any of the programs the Career Center had to offer. I thought, ‘Well, yeah,’” he says.

Letteney had visited a Career Center when he was unemployed, and says it wasn’t much help. This time, though, the advisor connected him to a scholarship program so he could go back to school.

Letteney says he just completed his first year in a sustainable construction program, with one more year to go.

“It did help get me to where I am now. If the Career Center advisor had never gotten to me, I would have thought that they were just trying to kick people out. But they’re trying to help people,” he says.

It’s an experience not shared by Keefe. He spent more than a year surviving on one meal a day or less and living in a tent in Washington, east of Augusta.

Keefe opens the door to a makeshift shed with a dirt floor. It’s about as wide as his outstretched arms. Inside is a tent covered with blankets for extra warmth.

“It’s just been a hard road, it’s just sometimes, the desperation is so deep and dark. We really shouldn’t have to go there. To know all this kind of stuff is preventable, is really hard,” he says.

Things are getting better. In March, Keefe was able to get an apartment through Preble Street’s Veterans Housing. It’s temporary, but a settlement from his work injury allowed him to buy the Washington property — he rides his bike 24 miles most days from his Augusta apartment to clean it up.

Keefe also turned 50 this week, and his age qualified him for SNAP. But he wonders where he’d be if he hadn’t lost SNAP in the first place.

“I would’ve spent a lot less time looking for food, and could have spent more time going forward,” he says.

Keefe says he’s still trying to figure out what to do for work.