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Alameda County residents sue over food stamps application backlog

on November 10, 2015

After pulling a muscle, Jarvis Johnson couldn’t work anymore. He lost his trucking job and went on federal assistance. After paying $326 to his brother and sister-in-law to rent a room in their home, he had $10 left over each month to pay for everything else. So he filed for CalFresh with Alameda County’s Social Services Agency and waited.

CalFresh is California’s rebranded name for food stamps, vouchers distributed to low-income Americans by the federal government, which can be exchanged for food in many stores. Each county is required to evaluate CalFresh applications for eligibility within 30 days of their submission. If an applicant has less than $100 cash to their name or has little to no income—like Johnson did at the time of his application—then the county is required to take emergency measures. The applicant may qualify for expedited food stamps, which requires the county to issue benefits within three calendar days.

But it took Johnson over eight days for him to receive his CalFresh benefits, according to a lawsuit filed against the county’s social services agency last month. His first application was denied, he said in an interview. So Johnson went back to the agency’s San Pablo Avenue office in Oakland with an advocate from the Homeless Action Center, a legal advocacy group, and filed again. Days passed, but the county didn’t get in touch with him. The lawsuit claims that, by then, Johnson was “in desperate need of food.”

“They’re messing with people’s lives,” Johnson said quietly, in an interview over coffee last month. “It seems like they don’t know the urgency. Or they just don’t care.”

Johnson is now one of three plaintiffs in Lilley, et al. v. County of Alameda, et al., a class action lawsuit that was filed in late September against the agency and its director, Lori Cox. The suit alleges that the agency routinely maintains a backlog of pending CalFresh applications. By failing to process these applications within the timeframe mandated by California law, the suit argues, the county’s social services agency prevents applicants like Johnson from easily accessing food. “As a result,” states the plaintiffs’ complaint, “Alameda County residents are facing undernutrition and hunger, homelessness, and serious health risks.”

“The federal Food Stamps Act has determined that having access to food is critical,” said Lauren Hansen, an attorney for the plaintiffs, in a phone interview. “These deadlines are not up for any debate.”

According to data released by California’s Department of Social Services, between August, 2014, and July, 2015, the county processed 16.5 percent of all approved applications and 25 percent of all denied applications after their 30-day window had elapsed. In July 2015, Lilley claims, 13 percent of all expedited applications were delayed as well.

The county’s backlog of CalFresh applications hit 10,657 in July 2015, the last month in which county data submitted to California’s Department of Social Services (CDSS) was publicly available at the time that Lilley was filed. According to data released by the CDSS in September, Alameda is the worst county in the state at processing food stamps applications within the time period required by law.

At the time Lilley was filed, the suit claims, Johnson’s fellow plaintiff Daniel Mallory had applied for emergency expedited assistance and had been waiting on his application for nearly a month. The third plaintiff, Donald Ray Lilley, had applied for general rather than expedited CalFresh benefits and waited for over 52 days before receiving them. “Without the CalFresh benefits,” the lawsuit claimed, “[he] is not getting enough to eat.” Before receiving food stamps, Hanson said, Lilley subsisted off of ramen noodles and pasta and was rarely able to get fresh produce. His diet gave him acid reflux, which he mitigated by sleeping sitting up. “Before he got food stamps, it had been happening every single night,” Hansen said.

Johnson and the other plaintiffs in Lilley are now receiving CalFresh benefits. Hansen said that their applications weren’t processed until after the class action suit was filed, when their legal counsel directly contacted the county’s attorneys.

Lori Cox, the director of the Alameda County’s Social Services Agency, did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did Scott Emblidge, the attorney representing the county in the suit. “Our mission is to promote the social and economic well-being of the people who come to us for service,” said Sylvia Soublet, the agency’s public affairs director, in an interview last week. “We work to do the very best job that we can.” She declined to comment on Lilley et al.

In the years following his workplace injury, Johnson says, he lost his house and his marriage “went sour.” Today, his main income is from General Assistance, a monthly cash stipend that the county distributes to residents whose total possessions are worth $1,000 or less. Johnson says he filed for disability and fought for workman’s compensation, and he spends most of his remaining $10 a month shuttling between doctors’ appointments. If his brother and sister-in-law hadn’t offered him food and a place to stay, Johnson says, he’d be frequenting soup kitchens. Their generosity takes a toll on them, he says, both financially and emotionally. “Can you imagine how difficult it is for them to take care of someone grown?” Johnson said. “It’s not like taking care of a kid.” CalFresh benefits would help them all make ends meet.

Johnson describes his CalFresh application experience as something of a bureaucratic purgatory. The first time he applied—without the help of the Homeless Action Center’s advocate—he found some of the forms so confusing that they took him nearly two hours to complete. With the exception of a friendly woman at the front desk, he says, no one at the San Pablo Avenue office particularly tried to help him. “They treat you like you’re some kind of kid,” he said of the staff. “They make you feel inadequate, like you’re really a dummy when it comes to filling out the paperwork and understanding what they’re asking.”

“When you go up there [in person], they tell you in a mean and nasty way that you’re supposed to have an appointment,” he continued. “When you say that you left messages, they’ll tell you that you didn’t leave any. Now how are you supposed to prove that you left a message?”

He wasn’t the only one frustrated with the agency. In the hours that Johnson spent waiting for help in the San Pablo Avenue office, he says he overheard people threaten to beat up their social workers. Then there was the profanity. And the shouting matches. “This is a daily thing,” Johnson said quietly. “You can imagine what we go through all the time. I mean, when you want to get physical with a worker, it’s bad.”

Hansen and Stacie Kinser, one of her colleagues, say that the agency’s red tape most severely affects its most vulnerable clients. “Working with this population, you find that they have multiple intersecting issues,” said Kinser. A significant percentage of Alameda County’s poorest residents also suffer from mental and physical disabilities, she said, and food insecurity can aggravate those health problems. Hansen said that her clients skip meals, which is particularly problematic for those required to take their medications with food. “I have clients that go dumpster diving,” she said. “Those who are diabetic are in a really precarious situation.”

Other low-income CalFresh applicants have dental issues, and Hansen says that due to state cuts in dental care services their only recourse is often to have teeth extracted. “So they can’t eat any food—they need food that they don’t have to chew,” she said. “And that can be really heartbreaking to watch.”

For mentally ill clients, said Kinser, weathering the agency’s paperwork, or the long wait in its waiting rooms, can be even more difficult. “When it’s a life or death issue to get enough to eat,” she said, “add to that level of stress a level of mental disabilities, and it can just exacerbate the problem.”

The suit is currently in evidence discovery, and Alameda County’s attorneys filed their first answer to the class action complaint in late October. It denies all of the plaintiffs’ allegations, including the claim that the county had not issued benefits to Johnson, Lilley and Mallory. The county’s response argues that the plaintiffs do not have sufficient facts to support their case and suggests that the three men are at fault for their situation. “Plaintiffs and the putative class members failed to use reasonable diligence to mitigate the damages allegedly sustained by them,” the document says, in response to the plaintiffs’ allegations that they faced severe hardships following their applications’ delays.

The county also denied that there was a backlog of 10,657 applications in July, and blamed that number on their own faulty computer system. In a motion submitted to the judge last week, attorney Scott Emblidge stated that the “defendants recently learned that its reports submitted to the State contained inaccurate numbers.” According to the plaintiffs’ lawsuit, the Social Services Agency’s own handbook states that the county’s data-keeping system is “not programmed correctly to report statistics of late [expedited service] determinations,” a fact that the county’s response does not dispute.

In the data Alameda County submitted for September, 2015, which the county appears to have sent to the state after Lilley was filed, its social services agency states that it instead has a backlog of 3,527 applications. While a considerably lower number, having any backlog would still violate California’s mandated processing timeframe.

Hansen and Kinser say that they don’t know why the agency allegedly takes so long to process some CalFresh applications. States and counties with similar issues have responded by hiring more workers, simplifying application procedures and streamlining databases, said Hansen.

Demand for CalFresh is heavy in Alameda County: 12.5 percent of its residents live below the poverty line, according to the most recent census data, and 1 in 5 residents rely on food bank assistance in some capacity. (The national average is 1 in 7). According to their website, the Social Services Agency’s 2,200 employees provide some form of assistance to 11.3 percent of the county’s population—approximately 173,690 people.

On a state level, California cut $15 billion in funding to health and human services programs in the wake of the recession. As of 2010, the state has the lowest food stamps participation rate in the country, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s most recent available study. A 2013 study by the California Budget and Policy Center found that 43 percent of eligible Californians are not receiving CalFresh benefits.

For the time being, Johnson says he’s doing better. CalFresh now provides him with $194 a month, most of which he contributes to his brother and sister-in-law’s household. “It takes pressure off them,” he said. “It makes me feel like I’m providing and pulling my own weight, even though it’s not nearly enough.” He now has $20 left over each month to get to his doctors’ appointments. He wants to get back to work and to get his own place.

But he’s still struck by the lack of empathy he said he received when he waited for social services to help him. “I think this is why they judge me,” Johnson said. “They look at me, but they’re not me. They’re not living in this body. They’re not feeling what I’m feeling. They’re not having that thought that you’re not doing the things you used to do to feel whole as a man.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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