Overcrowded Welfare Offices Causing Hardship for Poor

Advocates for the poor say welfare offices across the city have become seriously overcrowded, causing struggling New Yorkers to wait hours for assistance.

The city's Human Resources Administration has known about the problem since at least November of 2010, when it put into place an  "Overcrowding Action Plan" that targeted 10 out of more than two dozen welfare centers mostly in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens.

An HRA spokeswoman said since then, five centers have been improved.

But advocates argue problems still persist.

While long waits at welfare offices are not unusual, Legal Aid Attorney Katie Kelleher said the current situation has reached a crisis level. "What we're talking about now are lines that actually are outside of the center, so that people were having to wait hours just to literally get in the door of the building."

Kelleher  blames the problem on an inefficient system that requires people to wait in line for things that could be handled over the phone. She gave the example of one client needing to submit a change of address.  "She couldn't get anyone to deal with it over the telephone.  She waited in line two hours to get in the building and she had to leave to go to work."

The city said the problem is due to a high demand for food stamps. They argue people are not taking advantage of changes that allow them to apply for food stamps online or schedule interviews over the phone. According to HRA, the number of people receiving food stamps has increased by 500,000 over the last three years.

Legal Aid disputes the city's explanation and said the majority of people waiting in line are seeking emergency help to prevent an eviction or utility shutoff or to meet other basic needs that can't be done online. 

HRA spokeswoman Connie Ress said the agency takes the overcrowding very seriously and has put in place several measures to address the issue, such as expanding some centers and reviewing when appointments are scheduled in order to keep traffic down.

Meanwhile, advocates are worried the waits are deterring people from seeking assistance. They point to a November 2011 statistic that shows the number of people receiving food stamps dropped by more than 13,000 people.

The city said with more than 1.8 million people on food stamps a fluctuating caseload is normal.

City council member Annabel Palma, head of the general welfare committee, plans to hold a hearing on the issue in the coming weeks.