Hundreds Of New Yorkers In Need Wait For Help In Overflowing Welfare Center Lines

At 7 a.m. weekday mornings, hundreds of low-income individuals and families with children begin to line up at City welfare centers seeking emergency help to prevent an eviction or a utility shutoff or to meet other basic needs. They may wait for hours in the cold.

On Tuesday, the media focused on the problem with a story in the Wall Street Journal and WNYC coverage. A follow up story appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. Steven Banks, Attorney-in-Charge of The Legal Aid Society, told the Wall Street Journal that "at best it's benign neglect. At worst, it's like the English poor laws, in which the aim was to make the seeking of assistance so miserable that people wouldn't seek it." Katie Kelleher, a staff attorney in the Civil Practice who represents many of these New Yorkers, told the WSJ and WNYC that the City could help solve some of the problems by reducing the number of times recipients are required to visit a center and she vividly described the current crisis by saying "what we're talking about now are lines that actually are outside of the center, so that people are having to wait hours just to literally get in the door of the building."

The City says it is trying to solve the problem and blames it on the growing number of low-income New Yorkers seeking food stamps. But in addition to seeking emergency assistance other than food stamps, many of the adults and children waiting out in the cold now have been told to come to the centers for an appointment or to submit a document.

Requiring finger-imaging for anyone who applies for food stamps has also been identified as a further problem. In today's New York Times, Jim Dwyer reports in his column that "New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he will end this practice in New York saying it was an unnecessary stigma for working people who needed a hand during hard times."

The Wall Street Journal
January 3, 2012
Welfare Lines Overflow
Crowded Public-Assistance Centers Interrupt Services as Demand for Aid Grows
By Michael Howard Saul and Alison Fox

Growing numbers of New Yorkers seeking food stamps have created an unwelcome spillover effect at some of New York City's job centers: overcrowding that in some cases has grown so severe, benefits were jeopardized.

The crush of people grew so large at one Brooklyn center in November that the Fire Department intervened and prevented anyone from entering the building.

That was an extreme example of the problem. But clients at many of the city's 29 job centers—which manage public-assistance benefits, including food stamps—regularly arrive long before the doors open to wait in line. Advocates said people miss mandatory appointments, leading to a bureaucratic battle to reopen their cases, or abandon the process after growing discouraged. [NYHRA]

"It's outrageous," said Charles Leonard, a disabled 50-year-old who complained to 311 recently about a long wait and confusion at a center on Northern Boulevard in Queens. "It's like everybody is running around with their head cut off, and no one cares."

Officials at the city's Human Resources Administration, which runs the centers, acknowledged that serious overcrowding is a problem at five facilities. Advocates believe the problem is broader, affecting roughly 10 centers.

"At best it's benign neglect," said Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief at the Legal Aid Society, which provides legal services to low-income New Yorkers. "At worst, it's like the English poor laws, in which the aim was to make the seeking of assistance so miserable that people wouldn't seek it."

HRA spokeswoman Connie Ress blamed the overflow crowds on rising numbers of people seeking food stamps. The number of New Yorkers getting the benefit has increased by 200,000 in the past two years, jumping to 1.8 million from 1.6 million in late 2009. At the same time, the agency has consolidated some facilities, Ms. Ress said.

"We know that there are issues in a few of our centers throughout the city," Ms. Ress said. "We are actively addressing it."

Because Mondays and Tuesdays are the busiest days of the week, the city plans to stop scheduling mandatory appointments at centers on these days, the agency's general counsel, Ray Esnard, wrote in a Dec. 20 letter to the Legal Aid Society.

In Brooklyn and the Bronx, Ms. Ress said, the agency is "moving into new facilities with better space." In the past few years, she said, people can recertify for food stamps over the phone. "We've made things so much easier," she said.

Still, clients often need to visit the centers to submit documents and deal with complications. Ms. Ress said in-person appointments are necessary to avoid fraud and abuse.

The centers also handle additional benefits, including Medicaid. The number of times someone may have to visit a center can vary widely.

The city acknowledged in its Dec. 20 letter that at least seven clients' cases were violated when the Fire Department kept a crowd out of the Dekalb job center on Nov. 14. The city agreed to "reverse any negative case action taken against" those people, the letter said.

One day last week, more than 100 people lined up outside a job center at East 161st Street in the Bronx, many of them bundled up and moving from side to side to keep warm in the frosty morning air. At least one had brought a folding chair.

The first person in line had arrived at 6:30 a.m., two hours before the doors opened.

Michael Torres was a few spaces back in line after arriving at 7 a.m. from his Bronx apartment. The visit was Mr. Torres's second after being laid off from his job as a building superintendent two years ago. After 28 years of working, he had to move in with his sick mother, he said.

"You try to get here as early as you can," said Mr. Torres, 55. "The earlier the better. It's little by little. They don't let the whole crowd in, in one shot."

Jose Sevielle, a 27-year-old father of three who was waiting for food stamps, said he's hopeful the city will fix the problem.

"They have to put in another system," he said. "It's not running like it's supposed to."

Katie Kelleher, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, said the city could help solve some of the problems by reducing the number of times recipients are required to visit a center. "I thought this was an administration that prides itself on management," she said. "They can manage this problem. They're choosing not to."

On Friday, during his weekly radio show, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said advocates for the homeless and low-income New Yorkers tend to focus on the negative: "'Oh, it's terrible. The economy is terrible,'" the mayor said, mimicking critics.

Mr. Bloomberg defended his administration. "New York, as a compassionate society, does a better job of taking care of the less fortunate than virtually any other city," he said.

Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, said he believes some people are choosing to forgo benefits rather than confront the long waits.

He pointed to new city numbers that show that there were 13,000 fewer people on the food-stamp rolls in November, compared with the previous month. It was the biggest month-to-month drop since December 2010, officials said.

New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn plans to call for hearings to examine the decrease because other indicators—the unemployment rate and food-stamp enrollment statewide—don't reflect an improvement in the economy. Ms. Quinn has also been fighting the administration's policy of fingerprinting food-stamp recipients.

The Council is set to pass a law this month that will allow people to apply for benefits by fax and give the city latitude to grant hardship waivers for face-to-face interviews.

Still, Mr. Leonard, who complained to 311, said the problems go beyond the crowds: The centers can be bureaucratic, chaotic and hard to navigate.

"If you're sent to a floor, you're not informed that you're in the right place—there are instances where you're waiting and waiting and then discover you're in the wrong place," Mr. Leonard said. "It's unreal It's just a big mess."

The Wall Street Journal
January 4, 2012
Mayor Admits Job-Center Faults
By Michael Howard Saul

Mayor Michael Bloomberg acknowledged on Tuesday that there is overcrowding at some of New York City's job centers—where low-income people can gain access to a variety of public-assistance benefits, such as food stamps—and he pledged that his administration would attempt to ameliorate the situation.

"We're trying to catch up and we will," said Mr. Bloomberg, responding to a report in The Wall Street Journal that chronicled the severe overcrowding at these facilities and advocates' concerns that long wait times are deterring some New Yorkers from seeking the benefits they're entitled to receive.

Still, the mayor warned, there's only so much the administration can do, given budget constraints. The city faces a $2 billion deficit in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

"Keep in mind, like everything else in this city, we're going to have to find ways to do more with less," Mr. Bloomberg said during a news conference in Queens. "Some services are just going to have to be slower and just that's the way it is. But we are taking it very seriously and trying to do it as fast as we can."

City officials blamed the overflow crowds on the rising numbers of people seeking food stamps. The number of New Yorkers receiving food stamps increased by 200,000 in the past two years, jumping to 1.8 million from 1.6 million in late 2009. During the last few years, the Human Resources Administration, which runs the centers, has also consolidated some facilities, creating a space crunch.

The mayor said the city has attempted to alleviate the problem through modern technology, but he said that effort hasn't worked as well as officials had anticipated.

"We put in some technology, which we still think will reduce the amount of time you have to be at one of the centers. But it certainly has not been taken up as fast as we had hoped," Mr. Bloomberg explained. "Now, you can do everything online, except the verification of who you are. That, you have to go down to the center. Unfortunately, a lot of people are showing up and they've not taken advantage of that technology, and it's slowed things down."

Advocates have said they believe the administration is failing to manage the overcrowding properly.

"The people waiting out in the cold now are seeking emergency help to prevent an eviction or a utility shutoff or to meet other basic needs, or they have been told to come to the centers for an appointment or to submit a document," said Pat Bath, a spokeswoman for the Legal Aid Society, which provides legal services to low-income New Yorkers.

"And these are all things that people cannot do online," she said.

WNYC News Blog
Overcrowded Welfare Offices Causing Hardship for Poor
Tuesday, January 03, 2012 - 09:06 PM
By Cindy Rodriguez

Advocates for the poor say welfare offices across the city have become seriously overcrowded, causing struggling New Yorkers to wait hours for assistance.

The city's Human Resources Administration has known about the problem since at least November of 2010, when it put into place an "Overcrowding Action Plan" that targeted 10 out of more than two dozen welfare centers mostly in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens.

An HRA spokeswoman said since then, five centers have been improved.

But advocates argue problems still persist.

While long waits at welfare offices are not unusual, Legal Aid Attorney Katie Kelleher said the current situation has reached a crisis level. "What we're talking about now are lines that actually are outside of the center, so that people were having to wait hours just to literally get in the door of the building."

Kelleher blames the problem on an inefficient system that requires people to wait in line for things that could be handled over the phone. She gave the example of one client needing to submit a change of address. "She couldn't get anyone to deal with it over the telephone. She waited in line two hours to get in the building and she had to leave to go to work."

The city said the problem is due to a high demand for food stamps. They argue people are not taking advantage of changes that allow them to apply for food stamps online or schedule interviews over the phone. According to HRA, the number of people receiving food stamps has increased by 500,000 over the last three years.

Legal Aid disputes the city's explanation and said the majority of people waiting in line are seeking emergency help to prevent an eviction or utility shutoff or to meet other basic needs that can't be done online.

HRA spokeswoman Connie Ress said the agency takes the overcrowding very seriously and has put in place several measures to address the issue, such as expanding some centers and reviewing when appointments are scheduled in order to keep traffic down.

Meanwhile, advocates are worried the waits are deterring people from seeking assistance. They point to a November 2011 statistic that shows the number of people receiving food stamps dropped by more than 13,000 people.

The city said with more than 1.8 million people on food stamps a fluctuating caseload is normal.

City council member Annabel Palma, head of the general welfare committee, plans to hold a hearing on the issue in the coming weeks.

The New York Times
January 6, 2012
Holding a Spot for Stigma in the City’s Food Stamp Lines
By Jim Dwyer

Angela Sesma sped down a flight of stairs two steps at a time, then made a quick left out the front door of a city office building, onto Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. It was nearly 12:30 Thursday afternoon, and Ms. Sesma had been shifting from line to seat since 9 in the morning to straighten out a problem with her food stamps. She had to get to work. She also had her child to attend to. So she was in a hurry.

“I’m here all morning already,” Ms. Sesma, 37, said.

Others drifted out, blinking into the midday sun. “The line goes down the block an hour before the office opens,” said a woman who emerged from the office and would give her name only as Pat.

And The Wall Street Journal reported this week that so many people showed up on Nov. 14 at a similar city welfare office on DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn that fire marshals were called to clear the building.

As the city’s main relief agency groans under the loads of people who are looking for help, the mayor and his administration want to cling to a time-consuming custom from another era: the finger-imaging of everyone who applies for food stamps. Every other state, except for Arizona, has either dropped finger-imaging — the digital descendant of fingerprinting — for food stamp applicants, or never had it.

This week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said that he would end the practice in New York, saying it was an unnecessary stigma for working people who needed a hand during hard times.

Other technology has made it unnecessary: when fingerprinting was started in New York nearly 20 years ago, food stamps were pieces of paper easily traded, and digital networks were in embryonic states. Now the food aid is distributed on ATM-type cards that are electronically refilled. And it is a simple matter to check multiple databases to see if duplicate applications have been filed by a person using the same Social Security numbers.

But Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said on Thursday that finger-imaging was no big deal, and he appeared to betray some contempt for food stamp recipients in terms that seemed to contradict the realities of the modern food stamp program.

Food stamps are now geared largely to the working poor — not to people getting cash welfare benefits, a point repeatedly made by Mr. Bloomberg’s own commissioners.

Nevertheless, in his comments on Thursday, the mayor characterized food stamps as a handout being sought by people who were not working to improve the city, and compared them with city workers.

Almost every city employee has to go through the finger-imaging procedure, Mr. Bloomberg said, so to ask that of “people who are receiving things, rather than dedicating their lives to make it better, is hardly something that’s a great imposition or that anybody should feel stigmatized about.”

This is not a fight that is going to last long. Mr. Cuomo can change the rules without going to the Legislature. When Eliot Spitzer was governor, he banned finger-imaging for food stamps but granted an exemption to New York City and a few other counties upstate. Mr. Cuomo intends to withdraw that waiver, his aides say.

The city reports that more than twice as many people are getting food stamps as when Mr. Bloomberg came into office, and that the procedures are much simpler. So there is no proof that the finger-imaging process is a barrier to people who legitimately need the assistance, said Robert Doar, the commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration. However, a study by the Urban Institute suggested that tens of thousands of eligible people were discouraged by the procedure.

The finger-imaging discovered 1,900 duplicate applications last year, Mr. Bloomberg said, down from about 35,000 in the early 1990s. The city does not claim that all or even most of those were examples of fraud; Mr. Doar said that administrative errors were responsible for some.

Maggie Dickinson, who works at the Greenpoint Reformed Church Pantry in Brooklyn, said she had no doubt that the finger-imaging was stopping eligible people from trying to obtain food stamps.

One woman, a middle-class person who had lost her job and was living on unemployment benefits, had refused for nearly two years to apply for food stamps because of the finger-imaging, Ms. Dickinson said in testimony before the City Council. “She started crying, and telling me she didn’t want to do it, because it made her feel like a criminal,” Ms. Dickinson said. “But she was in a desperate situation. It took this woman literally getting to the end of her 99 weeks and having no income to overcome the psychological barrier.”