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LOST IN AMERICA // When the benefits run out

Bernardina Lorenzo Rodriguez does not know where her next meal will come from. And soon, she will have to worry whether she'll even have a roof over her head.

But Lorenzo, an 84-year-old Cuban refugee who came to Miami during the Mariel boatlift 17 years ago, is proud to live in America.

Last week, the state of Florida told Lorenzo she would no longer receive her $15 in food stamps. Then, the Social Security Administration wrote that by August, she would lose $484 in monthly federal aid. As a non-citizen, Lorenzo no longer is eligible for federal assistance.

Lorenzo is worried she may starve by summertime, but she is not bitter.

"Bitter?" she said in Spanish. "Nothing is worse than Communism! There is still freedom for every individual. Freedom to come and go without being asked by the Block Committee where I'm going or where I've been."

For about 100,000 elderly and disabled Floridians _ some encouraged to "vote with their feet" by fleeing Communism in Latin America _ freedom may be the only thing left to sustain them.

In a controversial provision of last year's landmark welfare reform law, Congress decided to withdraw public assistance to all legal immigrants who are not U.S. citizens. About 40 percent of the welfare bill's savings, or $24-billion, comes from eliminating public assistance payments for immigrants.

Don Winstead, Florida's welfare reform administrator for the Department of Children and Families, said 98,000 Floridians will lose food stamps under the new policy and 54,000 of the state's elderly and disabled will lose Supplemental Security Income, a cash benefit set aside for the nation's neediest.

Some immigrants who are losing the cash benefit also will be eliminated from Medicaid, a joint state and federal program that pays medical bills for indigents. State officials, however, have agreed to continue the Medicaid payments, meaning more than 2,300 elderly immigrants will not be forced out of nursing homes in Florida, Winstead said.

The Florida Legislature is considering picking up the federal benefits, but elderly advocates hold little hope. The price tag tops $300-million, Winstead said. Lawmakers already have warned it could be a lean year, indeed, especially for social programs.

"This could have the most significant impact of anything I've seen in 30 years working in aging," said E. Bentley Lipscomb, who heads the state's Department of Elder Affairs. "The potential consequences are extremely serious."

"We've got a crisis," said Josefina Carbonell, president of the Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Centers in Miami. "Hurricane Andrew was nothing compared to this."

$484 in monthly benefits

To qualify for Supplemental Security Income applicants must demonstrate they have virtually nothing. Though it varies by state, most applicants can have no more than a few hundred dollars a month in income and less than $2,000 in assets.

Throughout the United States, legal immigrants will lose the cash benefits by August. Some recipients already have been told they will receive no more food stamps by next month, Carbonell said.

About 10,000 Floridians use federal SSI checks _ as well as a small state supplement _ to pay the $612 monthly rent at assisted living facilities, group homes for the elderly or disabled who do not need the skilled care of a nursing home, said state Rep. Mary Brennan, a Pinellas Park Democrat who has lobbied hard for social services.

In Pinellas and Pasco alone, about 10 percent of the 1,000 assisted living residents may lose their income because of the federal aid cutoff, said Margot McBath, a management consultant with the children and families department in Pinellas.

Ironically, luck favors the weakest and most frail. Because some of the elderly already are on the "borderline" for needing skilled care, they can simply be moved to a nursing home, McBath said. Medicaid, which will be continued in Florida, will then pay the bill _ thousands of dollars more each month than a boarding home.

When asked what will become of the assisted living residents not fortunate enough to land in a nursing home, McBath can offer only silence.

For many, the food stamps and SSI payments are all that stands between abject poverty and destitution.

Lorenzo, who is 84 and suffers from diabetes and hypertension, is among them.

Even with the $484 in monthly benefits, Lorenzo can only pay her bills with help from her only living relative, a niece in Puerto Rico. Lorenzo's rent alone is $450 per month, and sometimes she pays 50 cents for a hot lunch at the Little Havana nutrition center. For dinner, Lorenzo drinks cafe con leche, Cuban coffee with milk, and eats either crackers or bread.

To pass the time, Lorenzo writes poems.

"America of immigrants," she recites. "Strong and firm in your convictions. May no one ever destroy you. May you remain everlasting. May God protect you from the envy of the powerful who wish to compromise your principles and ideals."

Last week, a neighbor dropped by to bring Lorenzo milk, plantains and cigarettes. He declined to take any money in return. What will you do, a visitor asked Lorenzo, when the government checks stop coming?

"I'll go live under the bridge," she answers, referring to an overpass of Interstate 95 in downtown Miami where homeless people sleep in boxes.

Citizenship can't help all

In Miami, it's Anita Bock's job to make sure that thousands of elderly and disabled people left destitute by welfare reform don't roam the streets. The administrator for Children and Families in Dade County, Bock pins most of her hope on a massive outreach effort geared at helping legal immigrants become U.S. citizens.

Nearly 70 percent of the state's legal immigrants live in Dade County, with another 11 percent in Broward and Palm Beach, state records show. Hillsborough ranks fourth in the state with almost 4 percent; Pinellas includes only about 1 percent.

For years, many of Florida's immigrants simply refused to become citizens. "They dreamed of going back," Bock said. "They never learned to speak English. They didn't want to give up citizenship in their country of birth."

With some help, Bock said, some legal immigrants can pass a naturalization exam and become citizens. For others, who are too confused or disabled to qualify for naturalization, or who simply cannot answer a half dozen history or civics questions, citizenship will remain forever beyond them.

Not surprisingly, the number of immigrants seeking naturalization has skyrocketed in the last couple of years.

From 1994 to 1995, naturalization applications nearly doubled from 540,000 to 1-million, said Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman Rob Koon. From 1995 to 1996, applications rose to 1.2-million. This year, the figure could top 1.8-million.

"This is not solely attributed to welfare reform," said Koon, who said other factors include a program that allows someone to apply for citizenship for little more than it costs to replace a green card.

INS tried to ease the requirements for some of the disabled with new rules that went into effect last week, Koon said. However, the agency left intact a provision that requires an immigrant to be cognizant of their actions at the time they take a citizenship oath.

"That's one of the areas we cannot change, because it is a law," Koon said.

The provision could prove significant for many of the elderly immigrants, who suffer from Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia. It almost certainly will disqualify Tomasito Figueredo, a 74-year-old Miami man whose mental retardation, dementia and early senility have left him with the cognitive skills of a 3-year-old.

Figueredo was cared for by his mother _ herself suffering from Alzheimer's _ until about three months ago, when she went to a nursing home and died, said Ariela Rodriguez, director of social services at the Little Havana activities center. Figueredo has lost his food stamps. His federal Supplemental Security checks will cease Aug. 1.

"He wouldn't know where to go," Ariela Rodriguez said. "The same thing applies to stroke victims or people with Alzheimer's. It's going to be very, very difficult."

Lorenzo is among that group.

"We have people who have flunked four times, five times," Rodriguez said. "They are unable to retain information, and they are not getting any younger."

Ninety-year-old Catalina Mas will not become homeless this summer when her SSI is discontinued. Her son, 58-year-old Aquiles Mas, will pay her rent at an assisted living home in Miami.

Aquiles Mas came to Miami from Cuba in 1961 with his father, a dentist. His mother immigrated seven years later, along with her own aging mother. Mas joined the Army, served six months on active duty, and then another eight years in the Reserves. Then, he went to college and dental school _ with no help from the GI Bill _ to become a dentist.

His brother, Jaime, also served eight years in the Reserves, and now works as a property appraiser. Neither man has ever received a dime in public assistance.

For his part, Mas is bitter that his adopted country would begrudge his mother a few hundred dollars each month in subsistence money. "She is such a superfine lady," he says, fighting back tears. "She is just a wonderful person who just got stricken with a disease, a person we welcomed here into my country."

"You see the old people with their heads down," Mas says. "Their pride has been taken away from them. Their pride that the government has given them something to subsist on. Of course, you cannot live on that kind of money _ you can just subsist."