Class Claims District of Columbia Bungles Food Stamp Program

WASHINGTON (CN) — Low-income residents sued the District of Columbia in a federal class action Monday, claiming problems in its food stamp program leave them hungry and without vital assistance to feed their families.

Lead plaintiff Shonice Garnett, three others and safety-net nonprofit Bread for the City say the District of Columbia’s Department of Human Services is slow to process applications, to notify recipients when it’s time to recertify their eligibility, or to give them a hearing before revoking their benefits, all in violation of federal law.

The Department of Human Services and its director Laura Zeilinger oversee the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program aka SNAP, or food stamps.

Problems in administering the program were exacerbated when the city rolled out a new computer program last year before conducting a live pilot study, and despite warnings about the risks of doing so, the complaint states.

In a March report this year, the Food and Nutrition Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture warned the D.C. Human Services about proceeding with the new system, saying it could result in “reduced program access, worker backlogs, delayed application processing, and untimely benefit issuance,” according to the 30-page lawsuit.

Chinh Q. Le, lead counsel with the Legal Aid Society in Washington, said that’s exactly what happened.

“We’re finding that our clients are having to go to the agency two, three, four, five times to straighten out issues,” Le said in an interview.

“They’re getting the runaround because our clients are met with long lines and confused workers who can’t find their records, saying that they either didn’t apply or don’t have a record of their application.”

The National Center for Law and Economic Justice in New York and attorneys from Washington-based Hogan Lovells joined the Legal Aid Society as co-counsel.

Under the new system, the time needed for Human Services to process applications more than quadrupled, from 20 to 90 minutes. The agency was late in processing nearly 70 percent of applications between October and December last year. And more than 90 percent of the expedited applications for those in dire need were approved late, according to the complaint.

According to federal law, eligible families and individuals should get food stamps within 30 days of submitting their applications. If benefits are reduced or eliminated, the city must notify residents beforehand so they may reapply or appeal.

When benefits are improperly cut off or processed late, Le said, his clients must find another way to squeak by.

“One of the challenges of even getting folks to step up and serve as plaintiffs is that they have so many more pressing needs and challenges to try to get food on the table for themselves and their families,” he said.

Some of the Legal Aid Society’s clients are homeless and unemployed, including lead plaintiff Garnett, who lives in a shelter and has no income. She was told on July 26 that her application had been received, but has not yet been able to get an Electronic Benefit Transfer card, or EBT.

Le said people such as Garnett rely on food pantries when problems arise with processing applications, but problems with the district’s food stamp program are stressing food pantries, too.

Bread for the City, which runs a food pantry program, saw a jump in demand for its food distributions after the Department of Human Services implemented the new system.

“Across all wards in the District, 38 percent more households received emergency food packages from Bread during the period of October 2016 through May 2017, as compared to the same period the prior year,” the lawsuit states.

Other D.C. residents, such as plaintiff Linda Murph, have part-time jobs or supplemental income but must find ways to fill in the gaps.

“I think oftentimes it’s cutting into savings; it’s borrowing from family and friends. It’s just being resourceful,” Le said. “Our clients are extremely resourceful, and they’ve made it as far as they have because they know how to make ends meet despite the challenges they face.”

Murph reapplied for benefits in April, but Human Services has not yet processed her application and she has not received food stamps since May, according to the complaint.

The Food and Nutrition Service found that Human Services failed to send denial notices in 67 percent of cases, the complaint states.

In a single week the system failed to generate nearly 1,400 notices: 12 percent of notices for that week. At the beginning of July, a backlog of 1,750 notices needed to be sent out, the complaint states. Three hundred of those notices were to inform people such as plaintiff Tracey Ross of the need to recertify their eligibility.

These problems are continuing, and Ross never received her notice of expiration, which deprived her of the ability to recertify and continue receiving benefits.

Le said Legal Aid Services and other advocacy groups have told Human Services of the problems their clients face, and decided to file the lawsuit after those efforts failed to produce change.

The legal group has testified before the D.C. City Council and written a policy paper with the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute about the challenges faced by the people they serve when dealing with Human Services.

The group’s relationship with the district has deteriorated, according to Le, who said the district “hasn’t been as forthcoming and solicitous” of their concerns as it once was.

“My hope for this lawsuit is that the district will not spend a whole lot of time challenging it, but will instead try to work with us to come to a solution that will help all the residents of D.C.,” Le said.

The Department of Human Services could not be reached for comment after business hours Monday.

The plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief.

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