I'm homeless. SNAP and Medicaid have been my lifesavers. | Opinion

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SNAP and Medicaid have been a lifeline for Colten Osborne.

As the public debate over creating harsh work requirements for those receiving SNAP and/or Medicaid heats up, it strikes me that the voices of those who would be most impacted by these policy changes are not being heard. Like mine.

I am 21 years old. I live in Erie and have been homeless off and on for three years.

When I turned 18, I was eager to leave home, as my parents’ house was not the most supportive place to be. I moved 32 miles away to Corry, Pa., to live with my grandma. I was finishing high school, had a girlfriend whom I loved, and was looking to get a job. Things were looking up for me. That is, until my grandma killed herself.

I had to leave her home. I slept where I could find a place to lay my head, but soon realized that wasn’t sustainable. Corry had no homeless shelters. There was no place to eat for the homeless. A police officer told me at one point that the town had a “no-homeless policy.” I would sleep in baseball dugouts and on top of a building to which I found access. I had no support. I headed back to Erie and moved back in with my dad and stepmom. It wasn’t too long before I remembered why I had left. My stepmom was verbally and physically abusive when I was growing up, and that hadn’t changed. I felt like a burden, not a family member. Staying with them was not an option.

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Camera icon Colten Osborne.
Colten Osborne

I signed up for SNAP and Medicaid benefits when I was 19. I receive $192 a month in food stamps, which keeps me from going hungry. But it doesn’t always last the full month. Not because I’m not spending it wisely, but because the things the homeless can buy tend to be more expensive. With no stove or refrigerator, we either need to buy things we can eat right away or things that are nonperishable. It gets expensive to eat this way.

Medicaid has been a lifesaver. I’m able to get the medication I need and make doctor’s visits without having to worry about the cost. Without it, I would be scared to go to the doctor if there was a problem.

The recent debates about imposing strict work requirements on SNAP and Medicaid beneficiaries are misguided. SNAP and Medicaid have been a lifeline for me during this difficult time in my life. Contrary to stereotypes of the homeless, I have been working on and off for years. Unfortunately, the jobs I can get pay low wages and are limited, since I don’t have my GED yet.

Working in low-wage, unstable jobs is very difficult when you are homeless. The shelter system, because of the high demand, has strict rules about what time you need to be in the shelter. An employer doesn’t want to hear that you can’t work evenings because you have to get to the shelter before it closes its doors. It’s hard to maintain a job when you don’t have a place to lay your head at night.

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Despite our best intentions, people in situations like mine might fail to meet the strict work requirements of the legislation being considered in Pennsylvania and in Washington. That would mean we could lose SNAP benefits for a year. If you fail to meet these work requirements a second time, you would lose SNAP benefits for three years.

I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, but I deserve better. I’ve faced difficult circumstances and am doing the best I can. I’m working on my GED. With that I hope to get a job at the county prison, which pays $18 per hour. I have hope that things will get better, and I’m working to make sure that happens.

Cutting SNAP and Medicaid will worsen the problem of poverty, not make it better. These benefits are literally some of the only things that many homeless I know have that they can rely on. We can, and must, do better for each other.

Colten Osborne has successfully completed two of the four tests needed to earn his GED.

Philadelphia Media Network is one of 19 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow @BrokeInPhilly.