Testimony by Camille Zentner, Supervising Attorney in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, before the New York City Council Committee on General Welfare, Oversight – Hunger in New York City

November 24, 2014

Chair Levin and Distinguished Members of the Committee, good morning and thank you for the opportunity to speak about hunger in New York City.  My name is Camille Zentner and I am a supervising attorney with the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) working in our public assistance and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits practice. NYLAG is a nonprofit law office dedicated to providing free legal services in civil law matters to low-income New Yorkers.  NYLAG serves immigrants, seniors, the homebound, families facing foreclosure, renters facing eviction, low-income consumers, those in need of government assistance, children in need of special education, domestic violence victims, persons with disabilities, patients with chronic illness or disease, low-wage workers, low-income members of the LGBT community, Holocaust survivors, as well as others in need of free legal services.

As a backdrop to our perspective on hunger and New York City’s administration of the SNAP program, I would like to briefly address the intrinsic link between the lack of affordable housing and hunger in our City. NYLAG’s public benefits and housing practices work closely together to prevent evictions and save affordable housing.  We strongly advocate for a right to counsel in housing court, which will keep hundreds, or even thousands, of New Yorkers in their homes.   According to statistics from the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and the Human Resources Administration (HRA), in September 2014, there were nearly 60,000 homeless people – including almost 25,000 children, sleeping each night in the New York City municipal shelter system, with thousands more sleeping on the streets.  Many families are forced into homelessness when they are wrongfully evicted or compelled to leave homes that are not regulated or otherwise subsidized by the government, or because they face poor or overcrowded housing conditions, domestic violence or job loss.  Once homeless, people and families cannot obtain, store and prepare food.

For New Yorkers facing hunger, access to SNAP benefits is a means to basic sustenance.  NYLAG commends HRA’s recent and evolving improvements aimed at making the SNAP program more accessible. We also appreciate HRA’s invitations to and partnership in ongoing working groups addressing various public assistance and SNAP-related issues emphasizing accessibility and customer service.  In recent months, however, NYLAG’s clients have experienced increasing and specific difficulties related to maintenance of SNAP benefits.

The most common SNAP problems our clients face are related to failures in the recertification process. HRA has developed systems to make recertification easier for the Agency and for households. HRA, for instance, allows telephone interviews for recertification. However, in innumerable cases HRA fails to call a recipient within an appointed timeframe or sends the phone appointment notices too late, frequently resulting in eventual termination of SNAP benefits for eligible households.

Where households are able to reschedule the call or go into a SNAP center, cases are often terminated anyway. Even if the case is reopened there are frequently gaps in benefits. This problem disproportionately impacts SNAP households that have members with disabilities who most often use the phone call system.

Fair hearings on these SNAP losses are difficult to request in a timely manner because the Agency sends notices about recertification a month in advance of the timeline required by law, meaning that when recipient does not get SNAP benefits after the end of a certification period, the household may only have days to request a hearing before the statute of limitations on the notice runs out.  Just last week I met with Diane, who receives SSI based on disability. In September, Diane received notice of a SNAP phone recertification interview and waited from 10AM – 2PM on the appointed date but did not receive a call. She went to her SNAP center the next day, submitted her recertification documents, and scheduled a new phone date but again no call came. She walked into the Center again that afternoon and met with a SNAP worker. After the Agency’s phone failures, her two visits to the center, two meetings with workers, and her submission of documents, Diane did not get her November SNAP benefits; this month she is choosing between using her SSI benefits for rent or food.

For the phone interview process to be workable for HRA and for recipients, increased resources and planning are needed so that HRA can consistently send notices about calls timely; have enough staff to make the calls within the appointed timeframes; troubleshoot problems with the phone recertification process; and stop the progression towards termination where the phone system fails.

Where our clients successfully apply or recertify, they also face myriad budgeting issues, often resulting in significant food loss.

Recently, our clients are experiencing significant reductions in their SNAP benefits due to human and system error related to assessing household utility costs.  Stemming from the changes in the federal Farm Bill earlier this year, the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance and the Human Resources Administration issued various policy directives and implemented computer system changes to capture the type and level of utility costs of SNAP applicants and recipients. See, e.g., OTDA GIS 14 TA/DC023 (June 20, 2014); HRA Policy Bulletin 14-68-ELI (June 25, 2014). Unfortunately, rather than simply implement the new authority with regard to how utility costs must be considered for SNAP-budgeting purposes, these changes default SNAP budgets to include the lowest possible standard utility allowance for a household, often resulting in erroneous and significant SNAP reductions.

The error seems to occur whenever an HRA worker is reviewing or making any routine change or update to a SNAP budget, thus not necessarily highlighting the utility issue to the worker or recipient. Notices then sent to clients do not adequately describe this particular budget change, making it difficult for recipients to understand what is going on or challenge the loss at the center level or through a fair hearing.  Individual SNAP households experience hundreds of dollars of SNAP losses – which are food losses – due to this problem. HRA should provide staff with training to understand the new rules and utilize the new system appropriately, the system should not default to recipient’s greatest harm, and it should include adequate alerts to workers to assess utility costs.

Failure to properly deduct medical expenses for households with members who are seniors or have disabilities is also a recurring budgeting problem. Many of our clients report submitting information and receipts to the centers and being told that these expenses are irrelevant, or report thinking that they have been properly deducted when they have not, even where the records and receipts make it into the case file. Frequently, our clients with severe medical conditions require special diets and many costly medications or other physical and mental supports that are not completely covered by insurance, where clients are insured. SNAP does not contemplate special dietary concerns and it is especially important – and often crucial to a recipient’s health – that medical expense deductions are budgeted to maximize food access and nutrition for these recipients. HRA workers must understand and proactively help households identify and support these deductions.

Finally, we have seen one particular budgeting problem that exclusively affects low-income senior citizens who are working under the federal Senior Community Service Employment Program, or SCSEP.  This program is designed, as the United States Code enacting it states, “[t]o foster individual economic self-sufficiency and promote useful opportunities in community service activities . . . for unemployed low-income persons who are age 55 or older, particularly persons who have poor employment prospects.” 42 USC 3056(a)(1).  As part of achieving these goals, income from any SCSEP activities is specifically exempted from eligibility determinations for SNAP benefits.  Nonetheless, HRA budgets this income, causing major food losses to vulnerable senior New Yorkers. Like the other budgeting issues outlined above, intensive staff training and guidance would significantly reduce these errors.

Problems continue when these losses and terminations of SNAP benefits are challenged at fair hearings. HRA’s SNAP fair hearing compliance unit is overwhelmed. Appellants who are able to navigate the system such as to successfully request and win a fair hearing often do not get lost or corrected ongoing benefits for months, well outside the federal regulatory timeframe requiring timely and full compliance. When clients “win” on the utility or medical deduction issues, they may wait months for rebudgeting and even then are frequently budgeted incorrectly. When clients “win” on recertification issues, recipients are often erroneously tasked with duplicating submitted information and applications, and then provided benefits from a later date than appropriate. Even when the Agency is definitively found to have erred in a budgeting matter, it may take several months to access benefits: in one of our SCSEP cases it was only after NYLAG escalated the compliance issue to high-level central SNAP staff that the problem was fixed, despite the favorable hearing decision and clear federal law and rules. “Hearing compliance” may sound like bland bureaucratic terminology, but the continued SNAP losses translate directly into food loss, instability, and hunger; eventual recovery of the benefits cannot undo the harm of the prolonged experience of hunger.  SNAP compliance needs more resources to allow its dedicated workers to address and implement all of the hearing directives more quickly and with more accuracy.

We appreciate the reforms that HRA has made over the past several months and believe SNAP access and maintenance will be greatly improved when HRA addresses the above problems. I ask the Council to continue working with the administration and encourage HRA to consider implementing our suggestions to ensure that all New Yorkers can access the benefits they need to help achieve food security.

Thank you for your time and attention to our testimony about our clients and their experiences. NYLAG looks forward to continuing to work with you to address these issues and reduce the problem of hunger in our City and welcomes the opportunity to discuss these issues further.

Respectfully submitted,
Camille Zentner, Esq., Supervising Attorney