As the de Blasio administration moved to close the third Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program center in less than a year, advocates and the union that represents staff at those facilities worried that the city was making it more difficult for those in need to apply for food stamps.
Last month, the Human Resources Administration announced that the St. Nicholas SNAP center on West 125th St. in Harlem, which serves about 25,000 households each year, would close June 28.
Cuts in Hours, Too
Current and prospective food-stamp clients will have to trek to another HRA location about a mile away in East Harlem. The de Blasio administration also announced plans to cut hours at other centers across the city.
The agency stated the reason for the closing was because foot traffic at centers across the city had been cut in half since 2014. Clients have increasingly relied on technology to apply for assistance: 87 percent accessed benefits through the ACCESS HRA app, while 97 percent conducted SNAP interviews over the phone.
“We are working with local clients to ensure continued access to services via the app or the closest center, which is only a few blocks away,” said spokesman Isaac McGinn, who noted that the shuttered complex was “underutilized.”
But Kiana Davis, a benefits advocate at the Urban Justice Center, noted that the figure included those who used kiosks at SNAP centers to apply for benefits. About 30 percent of food stamp clients applied at HRA facilities, according to the agency.
“We think the city has made some misleading statements justifying the closure,” she said during a phone interview. “And we find their statistics highly problematic.”
Ms. Davis worried that the closing could affect clients who were mobility-impaired, as well as those who had literacy or language-barrier issues. She noted that after two Brooklyn SNAP centers were closed last September, another facility clients were told to go to instead experienced more problems.
“We noticed a huge uptick in issues with SNAP recipients in Brooklyn, particularly because the center where clients were redirected was understaffed and overworked,” she said.
Eddie Rodriguez, president of District Council 37’s Local 1549, which represents the Eligibility Specialists who determine whether applicants meet the criteria to receive food stamps, was part of the coalition that urged the city to suspend the closing. He believed boosting the number of Eligibility Specialists would help shorten wait times, and said that both service and his members were suffering because of the downsizing.
“Eligibility Specialists are often rushed off the phone to go to another call, which affects quality of service. Closing locations is not going to help,” he said during an interview.
400 Fewer Staffers
According to the union, there were 400 fewer Eligibility Specialists working at HRA centers over the past four years: an 18-percent decrease.
“Management has been pushing pressure on ES’s: if an employee steps away from the phones to go to the bathroom, their manager might go looking for them,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “We have a lot of issues with food stamps, and it’s not just the closing.”
HRA came under intense scrutiny for long wait times at public assistance centers as well as its treatment of low-income New Yorkers seeking such benefits after several Police Officers and HRA peace officers were seen on cellphone video ripping Jazmine Headley’s 18-month-old son out of her arms at a Brooklyn benefits office last December. The incident escalated after HRA staff called the police to remove Ms. Headley, who argued with security guards and refused an order to get off the floor after she’d been waiting for four hours to restore suspended child-care benefits.
A ‘Sneaky’ Closing
In a report released earlier this year, the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project surveyed food stamp recipients and found that they typically had to wait three hours before speaking to an HRA employee. Two-thirds of those surveyed said that they were “always” or “sometimes” spoken to in a hostile manner by HRA staff.
Ms. Davis lamented the lack of community input regarding the St. Nicholas center. “This was done in a manner that was kind of sneaky,” she said, referring to the fact that the decision was announced less than a month before the facility was shuttered. “This is the third closure in less than a year and it’s unacceptable.”
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