Friday, October 21, 2005 | In September, a Washington-based organization, the Food Research and Action Center, published a report looking at food stamp access in urban America. The study showed that San Diego has the second-worst record for any big city in the United States when it comes to signing up eligible citizens for food stamps.
In San Diego, the study says, only 26 percent of people who are eligible for food stamps sign up for them. The only city lower is Oakland, where the figure is 23 percent.
It only takes about 20 minutes at one of the county offices that dole out food stamps to figure out why.
The stories of ineptitude, rudeness, delay, humiliation and disgust that resonate from those seeking the county’s help are sometimes hard to believe.
There’s the woman who wanted to be known only as Linda, who so far this month has sat quietly in the corner of the county’s downtown Metro office for a total of 22 hours over three days. All she wants is to collect her EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) card that she can use to buy much-needed food for her and her family. On Monday, she was still sitting, waiting, expecting to be called to finally collect the card.
Then there’s Luis Almeida, who said he stood in line at the office counter for 30 minutes after arriving on time for a 9 a.m. appointment. When he finally got to the receptionist, he was told he was too late for his appointment, and would have to return the next day. For the next 24 hours, he went hungry.
The stories go on and on. In several interviews with benefit-seekers waiting to apply for and receive food stamps, not one of the people the Voice of San Diego spoke with had a positive view of the system that has been implemented to serve them.
Some of those benefit seekers blamed the culture of the county for the low proportion of people signing up for food stamps. They said San Diego seems to be doing all it can to discourage low-income earners and homeless people from tapping into the benefits it has to offer. Others blamed the staff employed to administer the system.
“They need a whole new change of administration,” said Almeida. “They need to get rid of all these people and start again.”
Officials at the county defended their record. They said they have done all they can to battle a bureaucratic system that is handed down to them from the state. They pointed to pilot programs they are implementing that aim at cutting down on waiting times and refining the process for signing up for food stamps. They admitted the process can be convoluted and time-consuming.
The Food Resource and Action Center report, “Food Stamp Access in Urban America: A City-by-City Snapshot,” examined food stamp use and hunger in 26 of America’s largest cities. It concluded that, around the country, millions of people who are eligible for food stamps are not signing up for their benefits.
This under-participation, the study says, “adversely affects not only low-income people who are missing out on benefits, but also communities that could be benefiting from more federal dollars in the local economy.”
The role of food stamps as a vital link in the welfare chain is also stressed by local advocates of hunger relief and was the subject of a separate report published this June by the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Health Policy Research.
That report indicated that food insecurity has increased significantly among low-income adults in California since 2001. It recommended increasing participation in federally-funded nutrition assistance programs.
“Despite their vital role in staving off hunger among the most vulnerable, federal food programs are severely underutilized in California,” reads the report. “… The federal food assistance programs are California’s strongest defense against hunger.”
But advocates for the homeless community in San Diego said many of the people they help are unaware even of the existence of the food stamp system. Those who do know about it are skeptical at best about the sort of service they are likely to receive when they sign up for food stamps.
Molly Downs, program director for the Nueva Vida Haven Overnight Shelter in Bankers Hill, said she hardly ever hears about food stamps from the single women who come to her center.
“Single women, when I do their intake, man! Probably one in 20, one in 30 people say they have food stamps. Most of them have no income,” said Downs. “I don’t know how singles go about getting food stamps, and I’ve actually been working with the homeless for four years.”
The same goes for San Diego’s growing migrant community. Jose Gonzales, an advocate for many documented and undocumented immigrants in North San Diego County, said nobody he deals with bothers to try to get food stamps.
“This food stamp program is not for minorities, for non-English speaking (people),” said Gonzales. “It’s not for immigrants that come to the country to work, it’s just for people who know how to use the system.”
Getting to know how to use the system takes some time.
Applicants must first fill out a lengthy application form. Then they go through the form with an intake worker, who informs them of all the paperwork they must bring with them to prove their eligibility. That could be anything from a bank statement to their Department of Motor Vehicles records, if they own a car.
According to local advocates for the homeless and applicants for food stamps, many benefit seekers fall down at this initial stage in the process.
“That’s the number one thing that I would see as the barrier, is the IDs and birth certificates,” said Downs. “My singles, if they’re chronically homeless, or if they’re really mentally ill, they don’t have those documents at all, and they don’t have really the resources to get them.”
Roger Dietz, a 28-year-old San Diegan who was at the county’s Metro office applying for food stamps Tuesday and is not homeless, puts things more bluntly.
“They (the people who need food stamps) don’t have the ID, the Social Security card,” he said. “If you really need it too, if you really need the food, you’re out bumming change or asking people for leftover food, instead of spending three, four days here.”
That’s the next problem. Even if one has all the requisite paperwork, getting an appointment and going through the rest of the process can take, quite literally, weeks.
“It’s killing me, man,” said Malachi, a young homeless man applying for food stamps Tuesday. “I was supposed to get emergency food stamps in three days – I didn’t get them for two weeks.”
That’s two weeks that Malachi was forced to beg and survive off whatever he could find to eat. Despite the fact that he said he had filled out all the necessary paperwork and been on time for all of his many meetings with county case workers.
When San Diego County officials were asked about the long wait times and other issues raised by benefit seekers, their response was one of concern and surprise that the system they are overseeing has so many evident problems.
Nevertheless, they admitted that long wait lines and overly intrusive application forms were certainly contributing to keeping eligible people away from the food stamp program.
“I think the word is out there that when you go into the welfare department, you have to sit for hours and hours and hours and then you have to fill out 20 forms and they make you bring in everything, your birth certificate, your driving license – you have to provide half your life,” said Diana Francis, assistant deputy director for the county’s Health and Human Services Agency.
“I think people find that pretty intrusive,” she added.
Intrusive perhaps, but necessary, said Francis.
She said the county has very little say in deciding what information its workers must collect from benefit seekers. Such rules are mandated by the state government, she said, who insist that the county vigorously checks each applicant’s eligibility, however many forms that means filling in.
But officials from Shelby County, Tenn., the best county in the FRAC report in terms of getting food stamps to eligible people, say they have to collect just as much information from their clients as San Diego.
In Shelby County, however, 97 percent of people who are eligible for food stamps are receiving them, according to the report. Shelby officials say the difference is in how they collect that information.
“We don’t like long lines here,” said Eva Mosby, family assistance district director for Shelby County. “We despise long lines and we really try to work on getting customers in and out.”
To do that, Mosby said her county has a computerized system that allows case workers to quickly and efficiently process welfare applications. In addition, in Shelby County, benefits applicants are not even asked which type of benefits they are applying for; they simply fill out a generic form and at the end of that process are told what benefits they are eligible for.
The result, Mosby said, is a system that seamlessly and quickly gets the people who are eligible for food stamps onto the federal aid program.
But in addition to setting up an efficient system, Mosby said Shelby County also works very hard to let local charities, churches and homeless organizations know about the programs they run.
“In Memphis, we have a fantastic working relationship with the community,” said Mosby. “The beauty here in Memphis is we’re at the table with all our partners.”
That means the people tasked with getting the welfare benefits to the people that really need them are in constant contact with homeless organizations, shelters, churches, anyone who can help them get the federal aid out to those who are eligible.
Compare that to San Diego.
“We have not had any contact in trying to help people sign up for food stamps,” said Jim Jackson, president and CEO of the San Diego Rescue Mission. “… Right now, there hasn’t been any kind of formal contact.”
That’s the head guy at San Diego’s biggest homeless outreach center saying that the county has done absolutely nothing to let him or his staff know about the food stamp program.
Other advocates for the homeless say they think they know why.
“Unlike other major metropolitan areas that actually try to mitigate the effects of homelessness, San Diego’s overt and covert thrust is to make life on the streets hard, dehumanizing and criminal,” wrote Rocky Neptun, director of the San Diego Renters Union and a former editor of Street Light, a newspaper for the homeless, in an e-mail to Voice.
But other advocates for reform of the food stamp system are not so harsh. Nick Urban, education and outreach director for the San Diego Hunger Coalition, said the last few months have seen the county step up to the plate to deal with the problem of access to food stamps.
In July, the San Diego Hunger Coalition sat down with some 50 other community organizations in a meeting with the county’s food stamp program manager, the United States Department of Agriculture and the California Association of Food Banks to talk specifically about food stamps. They dubbed the meeting “Food Stamps 101.”
That forum coincided with the county’s formation of the 2005-2006 Food Stamp Task Force, a group that will focus on increasing access to the federal program.
“The whole idea of it is to give community-based organizations an opportunity to plug in to the food stamp program,” said Urban, “and to design our outreach activities.”
Urban said the moves represent a positive step toward re-building the food stamp program, but that movements by the county will have to coincide with action by community outreach programs. Jackson, of the San Diego Rescue Mission, agreed that this is a problem that must be solved by all the players in San Diego working together.
Until that happens, the steps already taken by the county are not going to come soon enough to help Linda. They are not going to help Luis Almeida or Roger Dietz or the several other homeless and low-income individuals contacted by Voice. They’re not going to help people like Malachi, who had his car – his home – towed from outside the county’s Metro office on Monday because, after three hours of waiting for his appointment, he had run out of quarters for the meter.
Looking out of his tired eyes as he smoked a cigarette outside the Metro office Tuesday, Malachi shrugged when he was asked what he planned to do if his EBT card didn’t arrive very soon.
“I was thinking about moving to Canada,” he said. “But I’ve heard they’re not letting anybody in there.”
Please contact Will Carless directly at