Working and Living in DC: Sequnely Gray’s Story

March 21, 2016
By Kendra Allen


The TANF program in the District of Columbia provides cash assistance to families with dependent children that do not have enough resources to support their household. The program includes work training, childcare vouchers and other services that help participants become ready to maintain a household without outside support. In October 2016, more than 6,500 families will likely lose these benefits due to a 60-month time limit.

Many of the families who will have reached the time limit struggle with barriers that make it difficult for them to make enough to get by. In addition, TANF services may be inadequate. As a result, advocates in the District of Columbia are working together to reform the program, particularly the rigid time limit, by creating hardship extensions. Families receiving TANF, the essential voice in this effort, have been involved in this advocacy work. So Others Might Eat, an interfaith, community-based organization that exists to help the poor and homeless of our nation’s capital, has been leading the effort to engage as many families as possible.

Sequnely Gray is the Community Engagement Coordinator for So Others Might Eat. She and her partner live in Ward 1 with their children (including a college graduate this year). I interviewed Ms. Gray at a TANF meeting hosted by SOME. Ms. Gray recently lost her TANF benefits and agreed to talk to me about her experiences.

Sequnely Gray

Sequnely Gray/ SOME

In 2004, the District was facing a significant decline in TANF funding due to the spend down of its TANF reserves in previous years. As a result, many programs such as the home visiting program, all TANF-funded education programs (UDC/PATHS, TAPIT), domestic violence services, teen pregnancy prevention, and more were all cut in 2004[1]. Can you talk about your experience when you first applied to the TANF program?

I applied to TANF in 2003 when I had my first child. My partner and I didn’t have any support from my family. My mom had just passed, so we were kind of looking for some support, some guidance. I didn’t really know about the TANF program, but a few of my friends were telling me about it. So I applied, and it was apply for TANF and you receive it and that was it. I heard about them being able to provide information about schooling or any type of supportive programs or any other services, but they didn’t have that at all—none of that existed 12 years ago. I had a case manager who I saw on a consistent basis, which was awesome. She was a really great person, but she could not offer me any other help besides the initial application or recertification – she herself was disappointed because she couldn’t help me because I would ask her and ask her.

There are many myths (often racialized) about the TANF program and the persons that participate in them. In a city with a high population of African Americans receiving these benefits, where the maximum cash assistance for a single parent of three is $441 and the national average number of children for families receiving TANF benefits is one child[2], stereotypes about these families still linger. What are some of the stereotypes you hear about TANF recipients in D.C.?

They don’t have any education. They’re lazy. They have babies just to receive TANF. That is not true. Yes, a lot of TANF recipients have low literacy rates, but they came through a broken education system and so have I. I’m a product of D.C. Public Schools, and I admit that. I’m just going to college now because I didn’t feel like I was prepared to enter after high school.

I think that plays a big role in them saying TANF families have a really low literacy rate or that they don’t want to work. There are a lot of functionally illiterate adults in the District of Columbia who have family that fill out job applications for them. So I don’t think that’s quite accurate to say because I do want to work even if I can’t read. I still want to get a job. I still have skills.

The TANF program in D.C. has been plagued with problems including inadequate customer service (such as long wait times), inconsistent case manager relationships, poor education on exemption categories, and dissatisfaction with job vendors. The D.C. Department of Human Services has acknowledged the issues and has taken steps to improve the services offered to TANF recipients to ensure their success. You met with the D.C. Department of Human Services at a TANF meeting hosted by So Others Might Eat and DC Fair Budget Coalition in October and made suggestions on improving the services, what has happened since then?

So what has come out of the listening session is the Consumer Advisory Board which I am a part of, which I actually made a recommendation for DHS to start and they listened. A lot of the problems with the customer service is that I don’t think they’re fully trained. They are not properly trained to deal with these types of situations. They are often frustrated because the workload is often really heavy. As a result of that, it’s like the attitudes and the tone of their voices when they speak with you, it’s just this notion that you don’t know anything about your life. Or you don’t know anything about what you want to do with your life, like they know everything because they’re the case manager. They’re not going to ask you; they’re going to tell you. That’s not effective at all.

And then it’s like I’m here sitting in the lobby and I’ve been here three hours and you come out laughing. You are talking about a football game or a reality TV show you watched last night and I’ve been sitting here for three hours to turn in a piece of paper so I can feed my children.

At the same time, there are department staff that are committed to serving their clients. Sequnely shares recommendations for ways to address this problem.

I’ve seen so many case managers and clients arguing because of how a case manager spoke to that person. Case managers should receive regular training or implicit bias trainings so they can realize what they are doing, you know, do you understand that you are oppressing people that look just like you? I don’t think they see it but it happens every day. You can go sit in a DHS office and just listen and you’ll feel offended. You’ll be like, “Woah wait a minute,” I feel like I need to speak up for this person but that’s how intense that environment is.

Many studies have shown that once a family is cut off before they are ready, the family is not able to replace the income and is forced into deeper poverty. Other studies also point to the relationship between toxic stress and poor child development. What challenges have you faced after being cut off?

We got cut off last October 1. Before we got cut off, there wasn’t any community outreach about coming up on our sixty months or another assessment to see if we still qualify. I receive a small stipend from SOME and I’m part-time, but my partner is a full-time worker and he makes minimum wage. Our household size is nine. I know we qualify for TANF but it’s just going into that environment and going through that application process again, it’s just, it’s really stressful. So we decided we will not re-apply for TANF and that we will definitely advocate for those who really, really, need it.

So now we are struggling, we’re making it work but we are struggling. We’ve been living paycheck to paycheck. That’s nothing new but that’s like a regular thing now.

When school time comes around, buying uniforms is really hard. I need to choose between maybe the kids need new shoes this month or do I buy extra uniforms because my preschooler runs through uniforms like crazy. Or I’m thinking should I pay more on the water bill this month or do I pay the full electricity bill, you know, just making those decisions.

We definitely relied on TANF to help supplement the money we needed for those toiletries and stuff. We’re a big family so we have to go to Costco, it’s no Giant or Safeway for us.

Now we’re spending money on groceries as well because our food stamps have gone down, which doesn’t make any sense to take our TANF away and decrease our food stamps. So that has me across the city to all the food banks. I constantly rely on food banks and clothes closets, I’m on all the lists.

But those are some difficult decisions that we are having to make on a monthly basis, which bills to pay. Do we buy extra snacks this month? Because we send our kids to school with healthy snacks. We want our kids to be healthy, we want them to flourish. We want them to exceed our expectations, but they can’t do that if they’re not eating healthy. They can’t do that if they don’t have the proper nutrition every day. Breakfast is the most important meal so we make sure they eat breakfast every morning before they go to school and doing that requires us to spend extra money other than food stamps.

If SOME wasn’t so understanding, I probably wouldn’t have a job but they understand how working families struggle in this city.

Although DHS is working to improve the program, many families still say the services need to be better. What advice would you give TANF recipients who are having trouble navigating through the program?

I just want to say to those who receive TANF or getting ready to come up on their sixty months, every time you go to the Department of Human Services or anything make sure that you get a receipt. Take that person’s name down and make sure you can get that person’s contact information as well. Don’t give up, be an advocate. Don’t think you don’t have a say about your life just because you receive TANF. Your experience outweighs any of those degrees in that building. You’ve had the experience, you’ve been through it, don’t be afraid to speak up, don’t be afraid to call your councilmember to report them. Don’t be afraid to send an email because if we didn’t TANF probably would have been cut off by now, but it’s really important to advocate for the things that you need for your community, for your children, especially for your children because they don’t really have a say, so if not for you, do it for your children. Think about them and their future and what that entails.



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