It’s midnight. First day of the new month.
Fifteen people — with more coming — line up inside the front windows of a Kansas City 7-Eleven, waiting their turn at the ATM in the corner.
The new month’s Social Security benefits deposits have just come online, and people at this store at Highland and Independence avenues are eager to take a share of their cash into the dark hours of the morning.
It’s a bad recipe for some of them, social service providers fear.
“Nothing really good happens at 12 a.m. or 1 a.m.,” said Jeff Lee, the program director at the nearby Hope Faith Ministries. “This is something that shouldn’t be happening on Independence Avenue.”
The ATM in this particular convenience store is one of the few available to a neighborhood with several homeless shelters close by, with many other people living in transient conditions. So it’s extra busy.
Another 7-Eleven 1 mile east at Benton Boulevard draws a similar crowd, said two customers who were part of Wednesday night’s rush.
“If you were on disability and you had to wait all month to get the things you want or do the things you want to do,” the first man said, “wouldn’t you want your money?”
And if this 7-Eleven ATM is the only convenient one for you, the second man said, you have to get here early, “because by morning the machine is empty.”
Many people who receive federal benefits use a prepaid debit card like the Direct Express card, issued by the U.S. Treasury, to access their funds.
The cards are helpful. People who do not have checking accounts and who may not have a permanent or reliable mailing address can get to their money. The cards also save the government the cost of printing and mailing checks.
But the midnight demand by some card users exposes anew what has long troubled social service providers and police.
Many people living below the poverty line have a hard time making their subsidies last the month, and a certain portion of people on disability are living with addictions or mental illness, and often both.
Some who take out much of their cash at the start of the month are vulnerable to abusing the money, or being preyed upon, said Sgt. Sean Hess, who heads the Kansas City Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team.
His officers respond to mental health crises, and they are busier at the first of the month, he said.
Many of the people they help “have got a lot of friends at the first of the month (when they have cash), and then they’re gone,” Hess said. “People come out and scavenge. There’s a lot of riffraff hanging around, and a lot of them are going to be high and drunk.”
Most of the social service providers in the area report a significant drop in the number of people seeking comfort services early in the month.
A lot of that is expected and understandable, said Larry Hansen, the emergency shelter manager at Kansas City Rescue Mission. People want a break from the shelters or street living. Or they want to be able to enjoy an outing to a cheap restaurant.
“Some just want to get out of community living for a few days,” Hansen said. “So the surrounding hotels get a little revenue from the government checks.”
Hope Faith Ministries, which offers many services including meals and clothing, averages some 350 clients a day, Lee said, but that fluctuates from fewer than 150 early in the month to more than 500 toward the end.
The Kansas City Community Kitchen sees a similar cycle, said Beau Heyen, president and CEO of Episcopal Community Services.
Many of the people who hurry to take out their disability funds, he thinks, are trying to seize some control of lives that are so much out of their control. Many people don’t trust institutions to protect their money, he said.
“If you know you’re going to run out (of money) before the end of the month,” he said, “you go into a fear model — a crisis model. You want to hold on because you don’t know what happens next.”
Many people without enough income for the month manage it the best they can. They pay their bills and stretch what’s left as far as they can, said the Kansas City Rescue Mission’s chief development officer, Julie Larocco. Some people on disability checks, either by court mandate or through their own financial counseling, use payee services to handle finances and make sure bills are paid.
But hardships come to bear, Larocco said, when “there’s too much month at the end of the money.”