Current course:  SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access, and Recovery (SOAR) Online Course: Adult Curriculum

Engaging the Person in the Application Process: Engagement Tips

Gathering information for the application requires making a positive connection with the applicant. The key to engagement is to help the person feel safe and comfortable.

There are a number of techniques that case managers can use to create a safe and comfortable environment for the applicant.  This article describes them including some specific examples from SOAR-trained case managers.

Make the initial contact

Keep in mind that having a mental illness may increase one’s natural tendency to be wary of a new relationship.
  • If possible, have someone they know provide an introduction
  • Allow a comfortable amount of space – even if it is your nature to come close
  • Use the Initial Meeting Worksheet to gather important preliminary information (found on SOAR Tools & Worksheets)
Jen: Whenever possible, I try to have someone known to both of us provide an introduction, such as a peer support worker. Then I can borrow on the peer’s established track record. I remember that I was having a really hard time establishing trust with a woman named Evelyn. Then I asked Rowen, a peer support worker, to introduce us. Evelyn responded, “Any friend of Rowen’s is okay in my book.”
Pam: I’ve also noticed that people need time to get to know us and they need a comfortable amount of space. I remember that Erik wasn’t comfortable letting people get physically close to him… and he always needed to be sure that no one could overhear the conversation and that he could “escape” the situation if he became uncomfortable.

Clarify what you have to offer

Another way to help reduce a person’s natural wariness is to provide them with information.
  • Make the purpose of your visit clear
  • Explain the potential advantages of benefits
  • Find out how this fits with what the individual wants
  • Describe the process – what is involved, how long it will take
  • Be honest about what you can and cannot do


Pay attention to the time. Respond to clues that a person is having difficulty following the conversation or attending to the task.
  • Do they need to use the restroom, get something to eat or drink, get to another appointment
  • Don’t overwhelm the person with too much information – each visit will provide an opportunity for further clarification


Each person has unique needs.
  • Listen to each individual’s story
  • Be patient, it may take time
Will: Be prepared to be flexible. Sometimes we get small bits of information from each visit that we have to piece together into the story of the person’s life. Other times, a person may want more time than you planned for a visit.

Gather information

Each visit is an opportunity to make observations about the person’s functional abilities.
  • Observe reactions and interactions carefully
  • Make the most of each visit
Pam: After seeing people, I try to record any observations that will later help me describe how they are functioning, even if the only thing I record is that the person found it difficult to concentrate on the task for more than 10 minutes.

Maintain contact

A central issue for people experiencing homelessness who apply for SSA benefits is the difficulty SSA has communicating with them when they don’t have an address. In the SOAR model, it’s the case manager’s job to maintain contact.
  • At the first meeting, try to find out where the person spends time
  • Find out who the person stays in touch with
  • Ask when and where you might talk again
Kristin: If you get a referral from an emergency room, shelter, hospital, or jail be sure to see the person right away. Find out where the person hangs out during the day. Ask where he or she gets meals or sleeps. Ask if there is anyone with whom the person maintains regular contact and if you can contact that person. Get a name, address, phone number, and of course, a signed release.
Jen: To engage people who have spent a lot of time in jail or prison, recognize that they come from a unique culture, the “culture of incarceration,” which follows “the inmate code.” Keep in mind that in jail or prison it is safest not to trust others, and that respect, strength, and privacy are highly valued. When people return to the community, they tend to carry these cultural dictates with them. (Read the article: Sensitizing Providers to the Effects of Incarceration on Treatment and Risk Management (PDF)).

When someone doesn't want to apply

There are many reasons that someone may not want to or may not be ready to apply for disability benefits.

  • Prejudice and discrimination around being labeled “disabled”
  • Believing that they do not have a disability
  • Not wanting to live on "government handouts"
  • Feeling they don’t deserve the benefits
  • Not trusting the government
You may need to spend more time with the individual building rapport and discussing reasons why they do not want to apply.
  • Help the individual to identify goals and show how benefits might help the achieve those goals (e.g. housing, food for their dog, support for their children)
  • Remind the individual that these are benefits that they have earned and/or are available to help them as needed
  • Reassure them that this does not mean that they are permanently disabled and that this can be temporary as they continue on the road of recovery
  • Discuss the option of working while applying and receiving benefits