Legal Aid Challenges City's Failure to Accommodate the Needs of Hurricane Victims With Disabilities in Its Disaster Relief Food Stamp Program

This week, The Legal Aid Society commenced federal litigation to challenge the City's failure to accommodate the needs of Hurricane victims with disabilities in implementing its disaster relief food stamp program. The City had restricted in-person applications to a single Human Resources Administration center in Fort Greene in Brooklyn for a seven-day period and a high school in Staten Island for a four-day period. The City made no provision for accepting applications by telephone or through outreach home visits in affected communities. The City also only permitted Hurricane victims who had lived in some, but not all, of the communities affected by the Hurricane to apply for these supplemental food stamp benefits to address urgent food needs as a result of the storm. In an editorial last week, The New York Times criticized the City's decision to limit its implementation of this federal food assistance program to combat hunger.

The Wall Street Journal reported on the problems caused for New Yorkers affected by the storm as a result of the City's actions in two articles which quoted Adriene Holder, the Attorney-in-Charge of the Society's Civil Practice, Kenneth Stephens, the Supervising Attorney in the Society's Civil Practice Law Reform Unit, and Kathleen Kelleher, a Staff Attorney in the Law Reform Unit. Judith Goldiner, the Attorney-in-Charge of the Society's Civil Practice Law Reform Unit, and Susan Welber and Sumani Lanka, Staff Attorneys in the Law Reform Unit, are also working on the litigation. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, Members of the New York City Congressional Delegation, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and City Councilmembers have all called for an expansion of the City's disaster relief food stamp program.

The Wall Street Journal
City Backs Limited Food Stamps for Storm Victims
December 11, 2012
By Michael Howard Saul

New York City will not expand a supplemental food-stamp program to help poor people affected by superstorm Sandy, the Bloomberg administration said Thursday, despite pleas from members of the city’s congressional delegation and the City Council.

The decision would reduce the scope of special food-stamp aid in place since the storm to just a dozen ZIP codes, although it could still be overruled by a federal judge. As the Journal reported earlier this week, advocates for the poor have warned that tens of thousands of people will be excluded as a result of the change and more than $100 million in federal funds could go unspent.

It appeared momentarily Thursday that Mayor Michael Bloomberg might have changed his mind. When asked at a news conference if he planned to expand the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in response to criticism from lawmakers, the mayor indicated that he would consider their request.

“Yeah, we’re considering,” the mayor replied, when asked about the calls for an expansion. “We want to expand food stamps to those people in the affected areas where they really suffered some hardship. We got to understand that all of this is the taxpayers’ money. So, we’re going to help those who really need help and we’re not going to walk away from them.”

But aides to the mayor later explained that he might have misheard the question, held outdoors at a new park in Brooklyn. The administration will not move to expand the food-stamp program, the aide said.

Advocates and elected officials have criticized the city’s decision to limit the food-stamp program to 10 ZIP codes and two partial ZIP codes; a similar program in November had encompassed 82 ZIP codes.

Critics have also expressed disappointment at the Bloomberg administration’s decision to open only two application centers, one of which operates on a part-time basis. Anyone currently on food stamps in the eligible zones automatically receives the supplemental benefit, but others would need to apply before receiving aid.

Attorneys for the Legal Aid Society told a federal judge this week of their concerns that the city’s Human Resources Administration, the agency that administers the program, wasn’t doing enough to make sure that home-bound New Yorkers with disabilities had access to the supplemental program.

U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest has given the city until Monday afternoon to respond. Katie Kelleher, a Legal Aid lawyer, said the city would need to specifically address whether it plans to extend the program or seek a waiver from the federal government allowing benefit seekers to apply via phone or fax.

Kelleher said the Legal Aid Society is also considering taking further legal action to expand the program more broadly. The issues currently being reviewed by the judge are focused on the disabled.

On Thursday afternoon, Bloomberg responded to the complaints from members of the congressional delegation, sending them a letter explaining the city’s decision to keep the program limited to 10 ZIP Codes and two partial ones.

Wall Street Journal
Quinn, Council Members Criticize Limits on Storm Aid
December 12, 2012
By Michael Howard Saul

New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and about a dozen council members are demanding Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration reverse course on its plan to limit the number of poor New Yorkers eligible for supplemental food stamps in the wake of superstorm Sandy.

As The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday, the Bloomberg administration won approval from the federal government to provide supplemental food stamp benefits, officially known as Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to New Yorkers affected by Sandy. But the city decided to limit those people who are eligible to 10 ZIP Codes and parts of two others; another similar program in November included people in 82 ZIP Codes. The Journal also reported that the city will have two sites available for applicants, one of which is open part time.

“It is unacceptable for the city to make disaster victims travel extremely long distances to apply for the benefit, particularly when the purpose of D-SNAP is to make their lives easier during these trying times,” Quinn and 11 other council members wrote in a letter to Robert Doar, commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration, which administers food stamps.

Quinn and the council members also urged the administration to expand the number of ZIP Codes.

The current zone “does not sufficiently account for the physical damage of Sandy, as hard-hit communities like Canarsie, Bergen Beach, Howard Beach and Hamilton Beach are not included in the list,” Quinn and the other members wrote in the letter. “It also doesn’t address the economic damage done to residents throughout New York City, many of whom lost wages in the aftermath of the storm. We believe that proper safeguards can be implemented that allow the city to expand the program while maintaining its integrity.”

The letter marks the first significant criticism from Quinn about the mayor’s response to Sandy. Quinn is preparing a campaign for mayor next year and is a close ally of Mayor Bloomberg.

A spokeswoman for Doar said the city is still reviewing the speaker’s letter. In an interview on Monday, Doar defended the decision to limit the number of eligible ZIP Codes, and he defended the number of application centers, as well.

“Sometimes in government you have to make choices and we’ve made a choice about how to target this program and we think we’ve made the right choice,” Doar said. “We think we’re going to help a lot of people.”

The New York Times
December 17, 2012
Stingy City Hall

Why is the Bloomberg administration making it so hard for people who need emergency food stamps because of Hurricane Sandy to get them?

The city dutifully applied for the emergency aid — the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or D-SNAP — and the federal government agreed to provide a one-time benefit for qualified applicants.

The program is not aimed at the city’s 1.8 million or so regular food stamp recipients, whose normal benefits continue, but at a smaller group of low-income people in storm-ravaged areas who lost power, ran short of food and suddenly needed temporary assistance.

Unfortunately, the city has set up only two centers to accommodate those who need this aid — one in Downtown Brooklyn, the other a part-time center in Staten Island. Applications must be made in person, which means a long and difficult trek from the Rockaways and other storm-damaged areas. The city could easily dispense these stamps from relief centers that already exist in those parts of the city.

There were other management decisions that seem miserly. The city elected to send aid to areas it thought were hardest hit, but that inevitably shortchanged many needy people in other areas affected by the storm. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Human Resources Commissioner Robert Doar should rethink this. The city also set a Dec. 18 deadline for applying. That’s too soon; many people have not even heard about the program.

Ten members of Congress have questioned Mayor Bloomberg’s approach. His response was disappointing. He said Thursday that his agencies have been working “around the clock” to help victims of the hurricane and that it is “absolutely critical” that they use federal resources judiciously. Fine, but they should not make those resources almost impossible to get.